For the third year, the Trump administration and its Republican allies in the United States Congress are refusing to abandon their harsh restrictions on aid to health programs for women around the world.
Instead, all amendments calling for a repeal of what is known as the “global gag rule” have been eliminated in the Senate version of a State Department foreign-operations bill for the first time in almost two decades. That restriction denies American funding to any and all foreign nongovernmental organizations that even counsel women about abortion.
Critics say the defunding cripples reproductive health work and costs the lives of women and girls in some of the world’s poorest countries.
At the same time, advocates for women can see a small but growing influence of legislators in the Democratic Party-controlled lower chamber, the 435-member House of Representatives, as Congress moves toward adopting the national US 2020 budget.
In February 2019, two Democratic members of Congress, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Representative Nita Lowey of New York, introduced a Global Health Empowerment and Rights Act — the HER Act. In May, Lowey, as chair of the House appropriations committee, released a sweeping bill that would have raised the US Agency for International Development’s funding on women’s health 30 percent, restore American contributions to the UN Population Fund and repeal the global gag rule. The House later adopted that bill as a policy plan for 2020.
In late September, when the Senate agreed to a draft bill of its own version of 2020 budget provisions, it increased proposed Usaid funding for family planning and women’s health slightly. But it rejected a bipartisan amendment on the repeal of the global gag rule.
According to an analysis by PAI in Washington, D.C., the Senate rejection was achieved by political trickery to get a larger, omnibus government spending package to the Senate floor quickly, without full committee approval. The action forced Shaheen to give up her effort to have a bipartisan gag rule repeal measure, however futile, written into legislation, as it has been in the past.
“By all accounts, subverting the committee process in this manner was an unprecedented breach of the longstanding traditions, norms and protocols of the Senate,” PAI said. But it added a cautiously optimistic note.
“Though flawed, this year’s Senate bill is diametrically opposite the unadulterated hostility toward FP/RH programs that has characterized House bills for the last decade. This bodes well for the prospects of success for House and Senate appropriations defenders’ efforts to sustain continued U.S. leadership in FP/RH around the globe.” (“FP/RH” means “family planning” and “reproductive health.”)
During the last decade, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. This year, the Senate approved a 2020 allocation of a $32.5 million base contribution to the UN Population Fund, as it did last year, although the Trump administration has asked for zero funding since taking office in January 2017. The money available for the UN agency has not been dispersed under the Trump presidency.
The global gag rule, a White House — not Congressional – policy, does not apply to the UN or other multilateral institutions. It demands that NGOs certify that they are absolutely not involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization activities. On the other hand, hurdles to spending appropriated by Congress falls under a different procedure, the 1985 Kemp-Kasten law, which makes money available but can be used at the administration’s discretion.
Under Kemp-Kasten, the same harsh anti-abortion rules apply. Either way, gag rule or Kemp-Kasten, the UN can get nothing from the US for reproductive health and rights right now. Usaid does assist in family planning, but the restrictions reflect a conservative anti-abortion ideology.
The deadline for a 2020 US budget agreement passed on Sept. 30 and has been extended until Nov. 21. In the current political fray over the possible impeachment of President Trump, that deadline could also be missed.
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.