Senate Steps Up Efforts in Support of Women’s Health and Rights

After the House made another assault on  women and young people’s health and rights in July, the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday stepped up in response – passing provisions to permanently end the global gag rule, make a $40 million U.S. contribution to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund and increase funding for international family planning and reproductive health programs.  These actions taken during markup of the FY 2012 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill, is in direct opposition to action by the House Appropriations Committee – a set up for a showdown given that completely opposite positions were taken by each chamber.

The amendment to block the global gag rule from being implemented in the future was offered by long-time champion Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NY) mostly on a party-line vote of 18 to 12, with all Democrats except Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and three Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Mark Kirk (R-IL)—supporting the amendment.  Lautenberg stated: “The United States is an international leader for women’s rights, and we must rule out any possibility that this dangerous and harmful policy could return.”

The Lautenberg amendment builds the momentum on ending the global gag rule.  Earlier in the week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the Senate version of the Global Democracy Promotion Act, a bill that is the same language as the amendment offered by Lautenberg, and has a House companion bill introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (NY) with 105 cosponsors so far.  The global gag rule fight is in many ways the international version of the assaults on domestic family planning programs and Planned Parenthood made by Republicans earlier this year.  On introduction of her bill, Boxer notes that

“If the Global Gag Rule were applied in the United States, it would violate the First Amendment because it restricts what organizations can do or say with their own funds. Ending this undemocratic policy is long overdue.”

Another key policy change in the bill is to enable funding for abortion in the cases of life, rape and incest for Peace Corps volunteers serving in developing countries.  This provision brings the Peace Corps in line with the rest of the federal government and creates a consistency in coverage for both Peace Corps volunteers and federal employees.

After the House Appropriations Committee made disproportionately deep cuts to family planning and reproductive health programs compared to other global health program in its bill, the Senate rejected those deep cuts and provided $239 million more than the House bill and $85 million above current funding levels.  This year’s funding levels had already taken disproportionate cuts and so the increases are an effort for parity and to show strong support given the many challenges in a very tough budget climate.

Other global health programs were reduced from the President’s request though still include $595 million for maternal and child health (including efforts on polio, neglected diseases, malaria and TB), $5.6 billion for global HIV/AIDS and $750 million for the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria.

On the domestic front, the Senate Appropriations Committee also passed the FY 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (Labor-HHS) eliminating funding for 15 programs totaling more than $230 million and reducing funding for dozens of others.  Title X, the domestic reproductive health program, was funded at the same level as last year – $299.4 million.

The Senate and House bills are not expected to reach the floor for debate in either chamber.  Rather (and not at all how this process is supposed to work)  appropriations bills funding the entirety of the federal government will likely be rolled together into an omnibus or several “minibus” spending bills to be considered later in the year.  Though given the recent challenges on funding bills in the House, it is hard to see exactly how the process will move forward.

So a lot of encouraging action by the Senate this week – though this process is far from over.

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