By Julia d'Amours
On September 7th, Senate lawmakers presented “a twofold rebuke” to the Trump Administration’s abortion policy. The proposed legislation would reinstate funding to the United Nations Population Fund and overturn the Global Gag Rule, a hallmark Republican presidential policy that bans US support for international organizations that offer or promote abortion services.
The first segment of the bill regards support for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which has a winding and tumultuous relationship with the United States. The UNFPA aims to promote family planning, maternal health resources, and improved childcare in developing countries. It was founded at the urging of President Nixon in 1969, with the US being one of its core leaders. By 1984, however, President Reagan became one of the UNFPA’s greatest adversaries, accusing it of supporting the Chinese “one-child” policy. He pulled funding from UNFPA through the Kemp-Kasten anticoercion law, which revoked US support from any organization that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization”. Since then, funding for the UNFPA has waxed and waned with the party of presidential leadership, with Democrats offering support for the organization and Republicans being quick to rescind it.
The second facet of the proposal is an amendment presented by Jeanne Shaheen (D- New Hampshire) to undo the “Mexico City Policy”. The Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule, bars federal aid to foreign organizations that provide or promote abortion. Under Trump, however, the policy has been expanded to all organizations that receive global health funding, such as those offering maternal health, anti-Zika, and preventative HIV/AIDs programs.The proposed legislation would undo Trump’s reforms, limit future efforts to reinstate the Mexico City policy, and restore US funding to UNFPA. The Amendment narrowly passed in a 16-15 vote with Republican Senators Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Ark) casting the final votes in favor.
The proposal has been praised across party divides. Shaheen applauded the bipartisan support for the new policy, claiming it would “preserve and restore funding levels for international organizations that help to prevent over 50 million unintended pregnancies around the world, and reduce the number of maternal deaths we see from those accessing unsafe abortions when the lack of family planning leaves them without options.” Family planning proponents hailed the move for “sending the message that the lives of girls, women, and families who rely on reproductive healthcare matter here and abroad,” said Brian Dixon, Senior Vice President of the Population Connection Action Fund.
Despite the acclaim, the future of the amendment remains uncertain. Unlike previous efforts to reinstate UNFPA funding and repeal the Global Gag Rule, the amendment has to pass through a Republican Senate, House, and Executive branch. Social conservatives in the House have controlled the US reproductive health agenda since 2011. Typically, the Senate has rebuked their more radical proposals, but now that social conservatives have more control there, the fate of the bill is even more uncertain. Remarked Dixon, “[the bill] has to be passed by the full Senate… It’s hard to know what they’re going to do… At some point, these two bills are going to get negotiated into something that both houses will pass.” Senator Lindsay Graham (R- S.C.) commented that the GOP-dominated house would insist on keeping Trump’s policy in place. “This is the same debate we have every year, probably with the same outcome,” he claimed.
Another indication of the amendment’s uncertain future is that the House spending plan includes no financial provisions for it, hinting that the proposal is unlikely to pass or at least will be watered-down before becoming law. Historically, Capitol Hill has opted to retain a traditional budget that preserves the status quo, and the foreign aid required to enact an amendment restoring funding for the UNFPA and rescinding the Gag Rule could amount to as much as $8.8 billion.
This bureaucratic push-and-pull between Republicans and Democrats on the Global Gag Rule may appear strictly political, but it has a very real effect on people’s lives and health throughout the developing world. For example, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association received 426,000 condoms from USAID over two years during the Clinton Administration. Once the Gage Rule went back into effect upon the election of Geroge W. Bush, the shipments ceased because the association was the only accessible conduit for condoms in the entire country, in which one in four women was HIV/AIDS positive.
Nor do Republicans’ intentions to curb abortions through rescinded funding seem productive. The claim that cutting family planning funding will make “abortion more rare” has never been supported with data. Studies by Stanford University and a survey of abortion rates in Ghana have shown the contrary to be true. Moreover, cuts to family planning services means abortions are more likely to be performed unsafely, a leading cause of maternal death.
The global trend towards liberalizing family planning services throughout the world indicates the common understanding that access to family planning services and abortion is a right and essential dimension to healthcare. Limiting maternal health and family planning resources does not reduce rates of abortions, but raises the death tolls for women and their children, meaning Republicans’ “pro-life” policy is actually the contrary.