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US Congress Strikes Back at Trump’s Goals to Curtail Family Planning


Some positive news for women: On March 23, the US Congress slapped back Trump’s effort to deny funding for global family planning, while delegates at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, above, congratulated one another after the final document on the annual session was approved. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN

In a rare act of legislative sabotage, the Trump administration’s plan to starve international family planning of funds has been killed for now as committees in both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate slipped hundreds of millions of dollars to support reproductive health programs into a 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion US budget package for the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year.

In addition, a qualified allocation of $32.5 million for the United Nations Population Fund is included in the law, signed angrily by Trump on March 23. Vice President Mike Pence, a fiercely conservative voice on social issues, had earlier announced that the Population Fund (UNFPA) would again be barred from receiving US government support.

That prohibition is likely to stand by executive order. Pence made the announcement on International Women’s Day, March 8. Was he aware of that irony or was the occasion chosen deliberately?

The new measure signed into law applies to government spending for only the remainder of the current US fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. But if a budget for fiscal year 2019 is not produced by that deadline, the current funding can continue. This year, it took six months of haggling in Congress and the White House to end a series of temporary measures called continuing resolutions and pass what is being called an omnibus bill — a vehicle freighted with so many provisions that members of Congress admitted that few if any of them had read it all.

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The discovery of positive reproductive health outcomes was made by PAI (formerly Population Action International), a leading independent research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The PAI report credited two Democrats in Congress for keeping the fight alive.

“How family planning supporters on the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, in particular Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-New York) and their staff, have managed to achieve this same positive outcome in final spending bill negotiations for the last eight fiscal years with hostile Republicans controlling the majority in the House is a marvelous mystery,” the PAI report said.

Work has already begun on the budget for fiscal 2019, with the White House vowing again to limit reproductive health aid. In February, the stressed-out White House proposed that the budget for 2019 should cut international family planning and reproductive health from its level in 2017 by 50 percent.

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The task of budget-writing for 2019 will be done against a backdrop of looming critical midterm Congressional elections on Nov. 6. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 (of 100) in the Senate are up for re-election, and Democrats are hoping for gains in both houses when a new Congress takes over in January.

The sweeping rejection of the Trump administration’s spending proposals for the remainder of fiscal year 2018 also included ignoring White House calls to end or disastrously cut government support for American cultural organizations and international exchanges. Minimal expenditures on small humanitarian projects had been targeted for elimination, such as a Department of Agriculture “food for education and child nutrition” program to distribute donated agriculture products to poor countries.

The list of targets was long, aimed at the heart and soul of American relations with the world: the meanest, darkest side of America First.

The 2018 appropriations law saved, or in some cases increased, the amount of federal support money for, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Fulbright exchange program, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and several nationally financed museums.

Trump lost his request for $25 billion for a border wall with Mexico; he got $1.6 billion, mostly for security improvements. His demand that funds for the Environmental Protection Agency be halved was denied. The State Department budget was reduced minimally, not slashed as Trump had proposed. Planned Parenthood did not lose its federal support in the US.

Trump, the self-styled dealmaker, was testy and fuming at the signing of the bill, which he had contemplated vetoing, he said.  He had been outmaneuvered by bipartisan negotiations and compromises, which taken together demolished his 2016 campaign promises to slash government spending. He did get more than $700 billion, however, for the Pentagon.

On global family planning, the 2018 appropriations law reflects the ideology of conservative anti-abortion lobbies, which the president appears to assume to be part of his electoral base. A Senate summary of the law emphasizes the continuation of a ban on federal foreign aid funds for abortions and numerous activities connected in any way with them, including counseling — a policy critics call a “global gag rule.” It also requires that advice on all forms of family planning, including “natural methods,” be offered.

According to the Senate summary, the law “ensures family planning programs funded through this bill are voluntary.” The false charge that the UN Population Fund was supporting forced abortions in China has been used over recent decades by Republican administrations to deprive the agency of funds from its once-largest contributor.

PAI’s analysis notes that the support for family planning/reproductive health in the fiscal 2018 law repeats previous allocations, the majority from bilateral US aid, rather than adding new ones:

“The omnibus earmarks no less than $575 million for bilateral FP/RH funding,” the PAI report said. “Two charts in the joint explanatory statement (the report language accompanying the omnibus) specify FP/RH program funding of $523.95 million from the [US] Global Health Programs account and $51.05 million from the Economic Support Fund for FP/RH activities in a small number of strategically important countries.

“While preservation of the current level of funding is a significant political accomplishment today, such investments fall far short of the $1.5 billion required for the United States to meet its fair share of global expenditures necessary to address the unmet need for modern contraception of the 214 million women in developing countries that want to prevent pregnancy but are not using a contraceptive method.”

A new study, “Abortion Worldwide: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access,” published by the Guttmacher Institute in New York, showed that while the abortion rate declined steadily from 2010 to 2014 in developed nations, at 27 per 1,000 women, it has remained stagnant in developing nations, at 36 per 1,000 women, with women in their 20s having the highest rates.

“The vast majority of abortions result from unintended pregnancies,” the Guttmacher report found, adding that “women need improved access to modern contraceptives.”

The US, Isolated at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women

While the drama surrounding the passage of the 2018 appropriations bill was playing out in Washington, an important gathering was taking place at the United Nations, during the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The rights of rural women and girls, the theme of the 12-day session, were contested in the meeting’s final document, which can be used by national legislations to help write laws and was passed by the Commission, after a marathon of heated negotiations, on March 23.

Some of the stickiest items, revolving around language, centered on sexual health and reproductive rights, sexuality education and violence against women.

One matter of contention over the outcome document was wording on violence against women — or the phrase “intimate partner violence.” Certain countries in the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East as well as Russia objected to the term because it implied the possibility of relationships outside marriage, such as LGBT partnerships, which these nations do not acknowledge or accept. The term does not appear in the final document.

The US successfully negotiated for the word “contraception” to be changed to “family planning” in the document, but it was isolated in trying to block language on comprehensive sexuality education, maternal health and sexual health and reproductive rights. Even a male Russian delegate participating in the discussion found the US effort to drop language ensuring women’s reproductive rights baffling, as they are enshrined in international agreements. Why take a “step backward?,” he said to a reporter.

Rural women make up more than a quarter of the world’s population and face similar serious problems, such as poor health, in rich and poor countries alike. That includes in the US, where the percentage of rural counties without hospital obstetric units shot up about 50 percent during the last decade, which means that about half of rural counties no longer have a hospital in which women can give birth, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs.

The US delegation attending the UN women’s gathering was led by Ambassador Nikki Haley, who apparently was neither seen nor heard during the session, from March 12-23. The delegation did not include an outside organization in its cohort this year, unlike in 2017, when two conservative advocacy groups, the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Family and Human Rights, officially took part, fanning outrage among many attendees.

Yet a US government delegate attending the final negotiations this year raised eyebrows with anti-abortion comments. Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser with USAID’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment office, reportedly said during the closed-door sessions that the “US is a pro-life country.” Groups that support the rights of LGBT people also objected to Kozma’s reportedly anti-transgender stance.

Kozma’s remarks were immediately reported in several media, but “the US was unable to get what it set out to do” in the document, said Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy for the International Women’s Health Coalition, an American advocacy group. “Countries recognize that these are important issues in rural areas. Everybody else recognizes this, too.”

The Rev. Patricia Ackerman, an American Episcopalian priest, above, said she was assaulted while standing near protesters outside the Unicef building, during the UN’s annual meeting on women’s rights in March 2018. Her flyer reads “Stop spiritual violence.”

In addition, on the margins of the Commission meeting, the Rev. Patricia Ackerman, an Episcopalian priest and a UN representative for the Netherlands-based International Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith nonviolence organization, said she was assaulted by a protester during a rally in front of Unicef, on E. 44th Street, on March 20.

Ackerman, a longtime New Yorker, said that she was heading down the sidewalk, passing people who were demonstrating against Unicef policies — contending, for example, that Unicef “violates parental rights” — when she was hit on the head and the back by a placard-carrying demonstrator. “They pulled me into their group, like a small riptide,” Ackerman said. “They were possibly not happy because I was carrying a flyer saying, Stop spiritual violence.”

Ackerman said they let her go with no apology, and she filed a complaint with the New York City Police Department and the NGO Committee on the Status of Women about the incident. “We are informing the US mission to the UN to know that this occurred as well,” she added.

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting from the UN. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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US Congress Strikes Back at Trump’s Goals to Curtail Family Planning
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