With coronavirus cases continuing to surge nationwide, a faltering economy, and an election on the horizon, there are a great many demands on legislators’ time and attention. Nevertheless, both supporters and opponents of U.S. family planning programs—at every level of government—continue to make time for this fight.
A Win and a Loss: SCOTUS Decisions Announced
On June 29, the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, struck down the Louisiana abortion law at the heart of the June Medical Services v. Russo case. The Court ruled that the measure, which was identical to a Texas law ruled unconstitutional in the 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision, violated the precedent set in that case. Chief Justice John Roberts, who dissented in Hellerstedt, wrote the new decision, and stated bluntly that although he still believed the earlier case had been “wrongly decided,” the principle of stare decisis required him to declare the Louisiana law similarly void. It is a win for reproductive rights supporters, but make no mistake: This is only a temporary victory. Language from Roberts’s decision makes it clear he ruled as he did only reluctantly. Abortion access remains strongly threatened by this Court. It’s only a matter of time before another case reaches the docket, and we’re highly unlikely to get a second reprieve.
The Court amply demonstrated that fact in the other major reproductive rights case of the session. On July 8, the Court ruled, 7–2, that the Trump administration does have the authority to exempt any employer claiming a religious or moral objection to contraception from covering it as part of employee health care plans. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the ruling, with Ginsburg writing, “In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs. … Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree. ”
House Bill to Repeal Helms Amendment
On July 29, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9), along with Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY-17), Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), Jackie Speier (D-CA-14), Diana DeGette (D-CO-1), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-7), and Norma Torres (D-CA-35), introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act in the House of Representatives. The bill would repeal the Helms Amendment, which bars U.S. funding for abortion services overseas.
Passed in 1973 as an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, the Helms Amendment states that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The policy has always been interpreted as an outright ban on abortion for any reason, including in cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening pregnancy complications.
Every year, there are an estimated 35 million unsafe abortions worldwide. They lead to millions of injuries and up to 31,000 maternal deaths. The Helms Amendment makes this crisis worse, preventing millions of people around the world from having access to safe, legal abortion and denying them access to care they want and need.
It is long past time to repeal this policy and allow the use of U.S. funds to support access to safe abortion everywhere. This bill is an important first step.
House Appropriations Process Begins
On July 9, the House Appropriations Committee passed the FY 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill. The bill contains multiple excellent provisions aimed at strengthening our international family planning programs. It calls for $750 million for our bilateral programs—$513 million above the administration’s budget request—and a $175 million increase over the FY 2020 enacted level. It also includes $55.5 million for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)—$23 million above the FY 2020 enacted level—although because the administration has invoked the Kemp-Kasten provision again this year (see below), that money will be redirected to other global health programs. Finally, the bill included the operative language of the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act, which would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule.
The committee rejected an amendment from Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY-5) to strike the positive family planning language from the bill by a vote of 29–21, along party lines.
On July 24, the bill came to the House floor as part of a so-called “minibus,” a small package of multiple appropriations bills bundled together. It passed, 223–187.
As of our press deadline, there was no word on whether or when the Senate might take up the bill. With negotiations on additional coronavirus relief packages and the desire of most members to get out on the campaign trail in the fall, most observers expect the final outcome will be a Continuing Resolution extending funding at current levels until after the November election.
Trump Administration Snubs International Organizations
At the end of June, for the fourth consecutive year, the Trump administration announced that it would invoke a measure known as the Kemp-Kasten Amendment to deny U.S. funding to UNFPA.
Kemp-Kasten states that funds may not be made available to “any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” Numerous investigations over the years have failed to uncover any evidence that UNFPA does any such thing. Nonetheless, hostile administrations have used the broad discretion given to them by the provision to deny funding to the organization.
Additionally, the Trump administration has continued to wage its war on international reproductive health and rights by asking the UN to remove references to reproductive health from its pandemic relief plan, arguing that it “does not rise to the same level of importance” as other priorities. Global health experts disagree.
Finally, on July 6, the Trump administration formally notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of its intent to withdraw from the organization. Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized what he says are the failures of the WHO to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and stated that he believes the WHO is being controlled by China. WHO rules allow any country to withdraw after giving one year of notice and paying any outstanding dues. At the end of June, the U.S. owed approximately $198 million in dues to the organization, which Trump, in keeping with his long history of defaulting on his debts, currently insists he will not pay.
Whether or not this plan ultimately comes to fruition will depend—as will so many other things—on the outcome of the November presidential election.