Congress Attacks Family Planning Funding, Providers, Then Goes on Vacation

June and July were hot months on the Hill, and not just because of the weather. Before breaking for their annual August recess, both chambers of Congress took shots at family planning. With the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching, there’s not much chance that things will cool down anytime soon.

House and Senate Committees Vote on FY 16 Funding

On June 11, the House Appropriations Committee finished its work on the Fiscal Year 2016 State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The bill slashed funding for family planning programs in the developing world by almost $150 million—limiting funding for international family planning programs to “not more than $461 million.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) offered an amendment to lift that funding cap. Her amendment failed by a vote of 21-30.

On top of slashing overall funding, the bill also banned any U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), despite its work to expand access to birth control, to prevent and treat obstetric fistula, to eliminate female genital mutilation, to ensure access to basic reproductive health care to women in emergency situations, to end the practice of child marriage, and to eliminate coercive practices in China. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) offered an amendment to remove that funding ban so that UNFPA can do its vital work. The amendment failed on a voice vote.

The bill also called for a reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule, one of the most misguided and mean-spirited policies ever created. It bans family planning aid to foreign health care agencies that use other, private funding to provide legal abortion, to offer counselling or referrals on legal abortion, or that publicly support a policy of legal abortion within their own countries. Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY) offered an amendment to remove the Gag Rule language from the bill and replace it with a provision to permanently repeal the Gag Rule. Again, the amendment failed, by a vote of 22-29.

The version of the bill initially proposed in the Senate was no better. It also contained the cap on funding, the ban on U.S. contributions to UNFPA, and the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule. Thankfully, however, the outcome of the vote was dramatically different.

The committee met on July 9, and, fortunately, our champions were ready to respond to the attacks. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) offered an amendment to the bill to prevent these devastating changes to our international family planning programs. Nine other committee members, including Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, cosponsored the amendment. It ultimately passed, 17-13. Along with Senator Kirk, Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted in favor of the measure in a rare but welcome bipartisan effort.

In a statement following the vote, Senator Shaheen said:

“An estimated 225 million women in developing countries are unable to access family planning services. Providing greater access to family planning and reproductive health services improves the health of mothers and children, empowers women to make their own choices about how to grow their families, and is a smart investment that helps reduce poverty.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Senator.

Ultimately, we do not expect that either version of the bill will receive a floor vote. The next step will probably be a conference meeting between representatives from each chamber, who will attempt to resolve the differences between the two bills. Having such a positive and bipartisan outcome in the Senate puts our supporters in a much stronger position going into these negotiations.

Planned Parenthood Under Attack … Again

Over the last two months, our friends at Planned Parenthood have been under assault.

It began with the release of several heavily edited, deeply dishonest videos shot by an “undercover” anti-choice group and posted online. These gave anti-choice members of Congress a new excuse to attempt again what they’ve been trying to do for years: end federal support for Planned Parenthood.

Multiple Republican senators quickly moved to introduce bills to strip the organization of its funding. Senator Joni Ernst (IA) sponsored the bill that ultimately came to the floor on August 3, just before the start of the August recess.

It was a stunningly cynical move. Anti-choice Republicans in Congress have been trying to defund Planned Parenthood for years. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) noted as much in his floor statement:

“Make no mistake—this proposal has nothing to do with protecting women’s health. Instead, it advances a political agenda that threatens women’s ability to receive often lifesaving care … Rather than recognize Planned Parenthood’s role in protecting women’s health, this legislation continues a series of unrelenting attacks on Planned Parenthood and on women’s access to basic health care. We’ve seen this strategy before.”

The vote was pure right-wing politics at its most sleazy and dishonest. Extremist senators (many of whom are currently desperate for attention for their languishing presidential runs) seized on these fraudulent videos to score points with their fanatical base by voting to strip funding from an organization that helps millions of women each year gain access to breast exams, birth control, and other vital reproductive health services.

Fortunately, the actual vote was less dramatic than the rhetoric around it, and Sen. Ernst’s bill failed to reach the 60 votes it needed for passage.

Now that they have returned to work after the August recess, there are indications that the House may hold a similar vote. And several members are actually talking about an attempt to shut down the government at the end of September in an effort to strip the funding.

Looking Ahead

The fiscal year ends on September 30, and with several Republican legislators (including multiple presidential candidates) looking to attract attention for their ostensibly conservative (read: reckless, irresponsible, punitive) stances on reproductive rights, there’s a high probability of further theatrics. We will keep you updated on what’s happening on the Hill—it promises to be a busy fall.

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