Almost as soon as the new Congress was sworn in, they made their attitude toward reproductive rights abundantly clear. We are going to have to be on our guard, and we’re going to have to rely on the White House to prevent policies that will harm women and families around the world.
Anti-Choice Antics and the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
For the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, congressional Republicans had planned a highly publicized vote on a bill to ban all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on the false claim that a fetus can feel pain at that point. In the lead-up to the vote, however, the bill’s proponents ran into resistance. The bill stated that to obtain an exception for pregnancies caused by rape, a woman must produce a police report showing that she had reported the rape in a timely manner. As the Justice Department estimates that only 32 percent of rape victims report their attacks to authorities, such a requirement would make abortion access for most rape victims impossible. A group of Republican women legislators protested. Tellingly, they framed their objection to the requirement as concern, not that the measure would harm women, but that the timing was politically damaging to the GOP.
In response to the controversy, House leaders hastily withdrew the bill and instead passed the misleadingly named No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 7). Current law already prevents federal funding for most abortions, so H.R. 7 goes further. It is intended to eliminate abortion coverage in private health insurance plans by eliminating the tax credits available to businesses and individuals who purchase plans that include abortion coverage. There has been no action on the bill in the Senate so far, and the White House has indicated that if it were to reach the president’s desk, he would veto it.
Key Senate Champion to Retire
Hostile bills aren’t the only challenge for family planning supporters. In early January, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)announced that she plans to retire after the 2016 elections. This will be a profound loss for supporters of women’s health and equality around the world.
It is no overstatement to say that no one on Capitol Hill has been more important in the fight to protect women and families worldwide than Senator Boxer. She has been the leader of the movement to permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule, she has been a vocal and forceful proponent of real investment in international family planning, and she has been a tireless advocate for progressive policies to address the many great global challenges we face.
As the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues, she has worked to ensure that U.S. policy expanded women’s rights and opportunities. As the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, she has fought for real solutions to the climate crisis (and has had to contend with the Senate’s leading climate denier as her Republican counterpart).
From climate change to public health to violence against women, Barbara Boxer has been a stalwart ally in the struggle. And her leadership and commitment will be sorely needed over the next two years. While we will deeply miss her voice in the Senate, we are profoundly grateful to her for all the work she has done during her time there.
We wish Senator Boxer well, and we know that although she is leaving the Senate, she will never leave her commitment to the fight for women and families everywhere.
2016 Budget Battle Begins
In early February, President Obama released his proposed budget for FY2016, and he continued to call for healthy investments in family planning and reproductive health around the world and here at home.
On the international side, he proposed a slight increase in funding for family planning programs in the developing world—$612.6 million, with $35 million for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The proposed amount is far short of the $1 billion needed to meet the United States’ fair share of the cost of addressing global unmet need (experienced by 225 million women, according to the most recent estimates). While we would have liked to have seen a more robust increase, it is extremely unlikely that the current Congress would be open to such a move. Both the House and Senate are expected to reveal their budget proposals in the next few weeks, and it’s a virtual certainty that neither will match the President’s benchmark. There is, however, still significant support for the $1 billion goal: 121 Democratic members of the House signed on to a letter sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) in support of the request.
On the domestic side, the President was bolder. He proposed a $14 million increase—to $300 million—to the Title X program, one of the main sources of family planning funding for low-income American women. In addition, he called for $10 million in additional support for responsible, evidence-based sex education, along with the elimination of all funding for abstinence-only programs.
The budget process faces a challenging road ahead, with some congressional Republicans already vowing to defeat the President’s proposal.
Shaheen and Speier Team Up to Protect Servicewomen
Along with the President’s budget, February brought renewed attention to other family planning issues on Capitol Hill. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) reintroduced the “Access to Contraception for Women Servicemembers and Dependents Act” (S. 358/H.R. 742). Their bill, first introduced in 2014, would guarantee women serving in the Armed Forces and their dependents the same insurance coverage of birth control as their civilian counterparts.
Women currently make up 16 percent of active and reserve military forces, and 97 percent of them are of reproductive age. Recent reports note that servicewomen face unique challenges in getting contraceptives and family planning counseling—especially when serving overseas—because TRICARE, the military health insurance plan, is not required to cover all methods of contraception. As a result, recent studies have shown that women in the military have a rate of unplanned pregnancy 50 percent higher than the general population. The Shaheen-Speier legislation will ensure that women covered by TRICARE will have access to the full range of birth control options without copays, just like civilian women covered under the Affordable Care Act. The bill would also improve access to emergency contraception, especially for sexual assault survivors.
Our servicewomen deserve the same protections as civilians, and the “Access to Contraception for Women Servicemembers and Dependents Act” will help uphold that ideal.
There’s no question that the next few months will be contentious ones on Capitol Hill. House Republican leaders have vowed to re-tool and pass the 20-week abortion ban, and the budget process is always a fight to the finish. We will be monitoring events as they develop, and will keep you up to date on what you can do to help.