If 2018 were a typical year, the pace of business in Washington would slow as summer approached, with members of Congress turning their attention to their reelection campaigns. If we’ve learned anything from the Trump administration, though, it’s that there’s nothing typical about it.
20-Week Abortion Ban “Will Be Back”
Back in October, the House of Representatives passed the dubiously-named Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which bans abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy on the scientifically-disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain at that point in its development. The bill contains limited exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and for life endangerment. It does not, however, make any exception for fetal malformations or cases where the pregnancy endangers a woman’s health.
After passing in the House, 237–189, the bill moved to the Senate, which held a procedural vote on January 29. The mostly party line vote failed, 51–46, with Democrats Joe Manchin (WV), Joe Donnelly (IN), and Bob Casey (PA) joining all but two Republicans in voting yes. Those GOP holdouts were Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK). The Senate is unlikely to make another attempt at passing the bill this year, but Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lead sponsor of the bill, told supporters, “[W]e will be back for another day… It’s just a matter of time before we get there.” Twenty states currently have similar bans on the books, although several are not in effect while they are being challenged in court.
Budget Battle Comes to a Close
After a protracted budget process — one that included two brief government shutdowns and five short-term continuing resolutions — Congress finally passed a budget for fiscal year 2018 in late March. International family planning fared surprisingly well, maintaining level funding at $610 million, with $32 million of that appropriated for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). However, with the Kemp-Kasten determination in effect, the money will not be released to UNFPA. Instead, it will be redirected to other “women’s health programming.” Dueling provisions in the House and Senate versions of the bill also led to a status quo outcome on the Global Gag Rule. Although Senate language permanently repealing the policy was not adopted, neither was House language codifying it. In this political climate? We’ll take it.
State Department Shake-Up
After months of speculation and a publicly deteriorating relationship between the White House and the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was unceremoniously fired — via Twitter, if reports are to be believed — on March 13. At the same time, Donald Trump announced the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement.
Even aside from the obvious perceptual problem with making the nation’s spy chief its top diplomat, Pompeo is a terrible choice for the job. He is a torture apologist, an anti-Muslim bigot, and has next to no experience with foreign policy.
Before becoming Trump’s Director of the CIA, Pompeo was a Republican House member from Kansas, with a long record on family planning and women’s health. That record is, in a word, atrocious. He has called the Roe v. Wade decision “one of the worst decisions of our United States Supreme Court.” He is a supporter of “personhood” legislation, which would not only ban abortion, but would also grant constitutional rights to fertilized eggs and make some forms of birth control illegal. He even explicitly opposes access to abortion in cases of rape.
As Secretary of State, he could be disastrous for women and families around the world. Dozens of reproductive rights groups opposed the nomination, citing his extreme stances and pointing out that as Secretary of State, Pompeo could have influence on the scope and implementation of policies like the Global Gag Rule.
Initially, it seemed the Pompeo nomination might not even make it out of committee. All Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposed the nomination, along with Republican committee member Rand Paul (KY). But Paul changed his stance at the last minute, and the nomination passed.
The nomination was rushed to the Senate floor less than a week after the committee vote, and Pompeo was confirmed on April 26 by a vote of 57–42.
Abstinence-Only is Back
President Obama’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (TPP), first funded in 2010, supported evidence-based, scientifically- and medically-accurate, comprehensive sex education programs. Although such programs include abstinence from sexual activity as one option, they also discuss birth control and disease prevention.
In 2016, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate hit an all-time low. Donald Trump and Mike Pence are apparently set on reversing the trend. Supporters of comprehensive programs have been under no illusions about the likely direction of sex ed programs under this administration. Anti-choice activist and birth control skeptic Teresa Manning and longtime abstinence-only advocate Valerie Huber became the top officials in the Office of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). And last summer, 81 groups receiving funding under the old TPP model were notified that their grants were being terminated two years early.
I reported on Manning’s abrupt (and still unexplained) departure in our last issue. Huber, who stepped into the top role on an acting basis, is still there, and is now the final arbiter of which teen pregnancy prevention programs receive federal funding. In late April, the administration announced what those programs will look like.
The HHS announcement says that in order to qualify for funding, programs must “clearly communicate that teen sex is a risk behavior for both the physical consequences of pregnancy and sexual transmitted infections; as well as sociological, economic, and other related risks.” It also says, “Both risk avoidance and risk reduction approaches can and should include skills associated with helping youth delay sex as well as skills to help those youth already engaged in sexual risk to return toward risk-free choices in the future.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said it best in her statement condemning the change:
Both Democrats and Republicans have supported investing in evidence-based approaches to preventing teen pregnancy, so it is disappointing — and deeply concerning — that the Trump-Pence administration is doing everything it can to undermine these investments in ways that take us in the absolutely wrong direction on this issue. These changes show yet again that the Trump-Pence administration’s priority is imposing its extreme, backwards ideology, no matter what that means for women, families, and communities.