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By Lisa Kaeser, JD
Senior Public Policy Associate
The Alan Guttmacher Institute
Despite some show of Congressional support earlier in the year for international family planning program assistance, opponents of family planning and abortion are intent upon offering amendments to foreign aid legislation at every possible opportunity that could severely hamper the provision of services overseas.
The current target of these efforts is the State Department reauthorization legislation. Reauthorization is a process by which Congress signals its ongoing support for a program, makes necessary alterations, and sets new funding ceilings. In recent years, the State Department bill has been the vehicle for foreign policy-related amendments on a variety of matters, including reorganization and consolidation of the department itself, becoming fertile territory for partisan attacks in the process.
Funding for foreign assistance has grown increasingly precarious in recent years, as overall public support for foreign aid dwindles. These additional attacks on U.S. funding for international family planning programs could have both near-term and far-reaching effects, illustrated by findings from two recent reports.
The first, issued by the General Accounting Office, details how the delay in releasing U.S. aid funds last year caused some disruptions in the international programs, although reserve funds helped minimize the impact for 1997.1
However, should the situation continue into fiscal year 1998, the report cites the potential for adverse effects on family planning programs, including reductions in staff and contraceptive supplies, and even the loss of some programs altogether. Ultimately, the report states, there may be a negative impact on contraceptive use and possibly on abortion rates.
In addition, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in New York City published its State of the World Population report in June, which contrasts current monetary contributions to family planning efforts by industrialized countries including that of the United States to the commitments made by these countries at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.2 According to the report, about 120 million women who want to limit or space their pregnancies are still without the means to do so effectively.
Further, the report found that denying sexual and reproductive rights, information, and access to services causes suffering and even death to millions of women every year: At least 75 million pregnancies every year are unwanted and result in 45 million abortions 20 million of which are unsafe and 67,000 deaths.
In recent years, there have been numerous attempts to amend bills dealing with foreign policy with the so-called "Mexico City policy" now better known as the global gag rule. This clause, if successfully appended to the State Department bill, would prevent the United States from funding any organization in a developing country that entirely with its own, non-U.S. funds provides legal abortion services or communicates with its own government about abortion-related policy. (U.S. law already prohibits any U.S. funds from being spent on abortion services.)
This policy, first announced by the Reagan administration in 1985, has been frequently revisited by Congress over the years but is not currently in effect. It was lifted by President Clinton in 1993, shortly after he took office. Supporters of international family planning programs point out that such a provision especially the clause prohibiting organizations from any communication about abortion would likely be unconstitutional in this country; to place it as a condition for the receipt of U.S. funds not only stifles democratic participation in those countries, but also amounts to U.S. imperialism.
From a more practical standpoint, the prohibition would withhold funding from the agencies that are the most experienced in providing family planning services, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
In the past, the State Department bill also has been subjected to an amendment to cut off funding for UNFPA if it continues to support family planning programs in China because of that country’s coercive one-child and abortion policies. Not only does other federal legislation already prohibit U.S. funds from being used by UNFPA in China, but the amendment would have only symbolic effect; UNFPA pulled its program out of China last year. Thus, the supporters of family planning services have argued, withholding all U.S. funding from UNFPA would only penalize the more than 100 other countries in which the UN agency works.
The global gag rule and the UNFPA funding cuts were joined on this year’s State Department reauthorization bill, H.R. 1757, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in early June. A joint amendment offered by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) was approved by an overwhelming margin, setting up a certain battle in the Senate.
If both houses of Congress accept these restrictions, President Clinton has promised to veto the bill, but it is not certain whether his veto can be sustained. Moreover, these same issues are likely to arise on the annual appropriations legislation that funds U.S. operations overseas, which must be enacted by Sept. 30.
It bears watching the actions of both the House and the Senate on these issues. U.S. family planners can look to treatment of these international programs to forecast what level of support Congress will apply when national issues come up for vote.
1. U.S. General Accounting Office. Foreign Assistance: Impact of Funding Restrictions on USAID’s Voluntary Family Planning Program. Washington, DC; April 25, 1997.
2. United Nations Population Fund. The State of the World 1997: The Right to Choose: Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Health. New York City; 1997.