With a fierce national budget battle looming in the United States Congress, Democrats on a key committee have formally proposed legislation overturning Trump policies that deny millions of women and girls in developing countries access to vital reproductive health care, including family planning.
The legislative bill that emerged on May 16 from the House of Representatives appropriations committee was sweeping. The committee, chaired by Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, would raise the US Agency for International Development’s funding on women’s health by 30 percent, restore American contributions to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and repeal the so-called global gag rule, which at the cost of losing all US financial aid, prohibits not only abortion services but also counseling on the subject in NGO programs abroad.
The bill may be taken up in mid- to late June by the 435-member House, which is controlled by Democrats after legislative elections in 2018.
The US Senate remains narrowly under the control of Republicans, with a strong conservative caucus, and is not likely to support the House Democrats’ proposals. Although in the current 2019 operating budget, $32.5 million was restored to the UN Population Fund account by Congress in a small act of bipartisanship, ignoring the proposed White House request to deny money for the agency. Again this year, Trump budgeters have recommended no money in 2020 for the UN fund, the world’s largest family planning and women’s health organization.
PAI, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization (formerly Population Action International), monitors Congress and produces comprehensive analytical reports. It praised Lowey and her committee for laying out a new American policy, whatever its prospects. A federal budget is due to be written by the end of September — a new fiscal year begins in the US on Oct. 1 — but in recent years that deadline has not been met because of partisan bickering and now an unpredictable president in the White House. Still, the Democrats’ position is clear.
“New Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey and her Democratic colleagues have succeeded in assembling a truly remarkable bill in its prioritization of FP/RH programs as a key element of US foreign assistance investments in the advancement of the health and well-being of women and girls in the Global South,” PAI said in its Washington Memo in mid-May. (FP stands for “family planning” and RH, “reproductive health.”)
The declaration of intent by House Democrats comes amid an interesting year for women. A record number of women hold more than 23 percent of seats in the House, where the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, is third in line of presidential succession should a president leave office before an election. In the 100-seat Senate, a quarter of the members are women. At least a half-dozen women have declared they are running for president in 2020. Most of them are qualified candidates.
The #MeToo movement is now playing out surrounded by publicity in American courts and boardrooms, accompanied by echoing protests around the world. Awareness of women’s issues is developing in new corners of society. Advocates for women in the US are becoming more vocal on abortion, as retrogressive laws are being passed in some states that lean toward a total ban on the procedure.
Those actions are leading other states to legislate for a woman’s right to choose, guaranteed by a 1973 Supreme Court decision, in a case known as Roe v. Wade. It ruled that excessively restrictive state laws against abortion were unconstitutional.
Among the women in the early stages of the 2020 presidential race, several have been outspoken on protecting women’s right to abortion. One candidate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who is still low in polls, conveyed a simple message at a recent election rally in Iowa. “[A] woman should be able to decide when she’s having children, how many children’s she’s having and under what circumstances. . . . This is a human right,” she said.
In its May 16 Washington Memo, PAI noted that the House appropriations committee bill specifies that “not less than” $750 million shall be made available for family planning and reproductive health out of a total $805.5 million in all women’s health programs.
The White House budget had asked for $237 million. Democrats are also demanding that all funds for reproductive health be drawn from a global health program administered by Usaid and not rely on money from economic support funds that go to strategically important countries — allies of Washington, among others.
Using global-health program money, PAI wrote, “is a much more cost-effective use of resources and more likely to result in in the funds’ use for their intended family planning purposes.”
Usaid falls under an omnibus State Department budget, as does the UN Population Fund. The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, from where it was introduced at an international conference by the administration of President Ronald Reagan, can and has been reversed or diminished by order of a Democratic president.
For the UN Population Fund, the appropriations committee earmarked $55.5 million for 2020; the Trump team had a naked 0 in its plan.
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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.