Washington Memo

Cuts and Consequences: What Sequestration Might Mean for International Family Planning Assistance

One week from today—unless Congress and the President reach a deal to avoid it—an across-the-board cut in federal spending will cause international family planning and reproductive health programs to lose tens of millions of dollars, resulting in the denial of contraceptive services to nearly 1.7 million women and in almost 500,000 women having unintended pregnancies as a consequence.  The clock is ticking.

On March 1, absent an agreement on long-term budget deficit reduction, large, automatic cuts will be made to domestic and defense programs under an arcane process known as “sequestration.”  This scenario was set in motion during the high-stakes, partisan negotiations to raise the nation’s debt ceiling back in 2011.  The thought at the time was that the magnitude of the funding cuts—particularly to the U.S. military—required under sequestration would force agreement on a comprehensive deficit reduction package balancing spending cuts with additional tax revenue.  But now the politically unthinkable appears to have become thinkable—and sequestration is seemingly all but inevitable, at least temporarily.

What would sequestration mean for overseas family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) programs?  In fiscal year 2012, funding for international FP/RH programs in all accounts is earmarked at $610 million, including a $35 million contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).  While no final decisions have probably been made yet on how sequestration would be applied within the foreign assistance budget, it seems likely that the 5.3 percent reduction to non-defense discretionary programs estimated by the Congressional Budget Office would be applied to the earmarks of bilateral economic assistance for USAID programs and multilateral assistance for U.S. government’s contribution to UNFPA.  The net effect would be a cut of $32.3 million to FP/RH programs from the FY 2012 appropriated level.

What would these funding cuts mean in the lives of women and their families in developing countries who are the beneficiaries of USAID and UNFPA programs?  Based on an analysis of the powerful impact of U.S. investment in FP/RH programs overseas by the Guttmacher Institute, the following potential effects of the reduced funding level can be calculated:

  • 1.68 million women denied access to contraceptive services & supplies
  • 485,000 additional unintended pregnancies
  • 226,000 additional unplanned births
  • 226,000 additional abortions (of which 162,000 are unsafe)
  • 1,292 maternal deaths
  • 6,460 children losing their mothers

Last week, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee issued a report on the impact of the sequester on the whole gamut of federal programs, noting:

“A sequester would force cuts to global health and development funding of over $432 million, severely hindering the United States Government from taking advantage of opportunities to dramatically change the face of disease and, in some cases, permanently reduce suffering. Implementation of mandated sequestration would result in lost opportunities and lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – the neediest regions of the world – and jeopardize the progress we are making in saving lives and building a better and more secure world for children and their families.”

A letter from Secretary of State Kerry to the Senate Appropriations Committee detailing the effect of funding cuts to State Department operations and foreign assistance also outlined the damaging potential impacts of sequestration.  Earlier this week in an address at the University of Virginia, he eloquently implored citizen “lobbyists” to raise their voices to help avert pending and future cuts to lifesaving health and development programs.

When Congress returns to Washington next week, the search for a political settlement to avoid or perhaps delay the imposition of sequestration will take place against the backdrop of the need to finalize the FY 2013 appropriations process.  The current FY 2013 “continuing resolution” keeping the government open expires on March 27. In addition, the President has yet to send his FY 2014 budget to Congress.  The President’s budget request is normally submitted the first Monday in February, but current indications suggest that it will not go to Capitol Hill until mid-March at the earliest.

No one in Washington can say with any certainty how this complex interplay of looming policy and budgetary decisions will be resolved.  So rather than speculate, we will just offer to do our best to keep you informed in a timely manner.

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