Pending final approval of a massive $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund most of the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2015, family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) advocates appear to be on the verge achieving a significant victory—at least how victory is defined in the current political environment.
In the State Department and foreign operations section of the FY 2015 omnibus filed last night, Senate and House champions were completely successful in preserving the status quo—neither a funding cut nor any policy “riders” are imposed. As has occurred in the previous four fiscal years, negotiators split the difference between the healthy funding and supportive policy provisions contained in the Senate committee-passed bill and the steep funding cuts and harmful policy proposals in the House committee’s version. Holding the line now will give advocates a better starting point in preparation for the arrival of the 114th Congress, which is likely to be considerably less supportive on FP/RH issues than the outgoing Congress.
One area of the U.S. government’s overseas development and humanitarian assistance effort witnessed important progress. An amendment, previously approved by both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, was incorporated in the omnibus providing exceptions for payment for abortions for Peace Corps volunteers in the cases of life, rape or incest. This modifies a 35-year old total ban on any funding for abortion services for Peace Corps volunteers. This change will ensure that Peace Corps volunteers should soon enjoy the same level of coverage for reproductive health care services as other federal employees, correcting a longstanding inequity.
The FP/RH provisions contained in the proposed FY 2015 omnibus are virtually identical those enacted in FY 2014.
Statutory earmarks of “not less than” $575 million from all bilateral accounts and an additional $35 million “shall be made available” for a U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) resulting in total FP/RH funding from all accounts equaling $610 million, the same amount appropriated in FY 2014. The explanatory statement accompanying the bill specifies that $523.95 million of the bilateral funding for FP/RH programs is to be allocated from the Global Health Programs account. There are no other specific allocations for FP/RH from other bilateral accounts, such as the Economic Support Fund, which is the source of funds for FP/RH activities in strategically and politically important countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Jordan.
Global Gag Rule/Mexico City Policy
No legislative language is included in the omnibus either imposing or permanently preventing the reinstatement of this harmful executive branch policy, which has not been in force since the start of the Obama administration. The House draft would have legislatively imposed a reinstatement of the policy and the Senate draft included a permanent repeal, as a result of an amendment successfully offered by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
Statutory earmark of $35 million for UNFPA that “shall” be provided from the International Organizations and Programs (IO&P) account which funds U.S. voluntary contributions to UN agencies. Longstanding punitive restrictions on the U.S. contribution to UNFPA are again reiterated in the omnibus requiring UNFPA to maintain U.S. funds in a segregated account, none of which may be spent in China or for abortion, and mandating a dollar-for-dollar “withholding” of the amount UNFPA plans to spend in China during the fiscal year.
The prohibition on use of federal funds “to pay for abortions” for Peace Corps volunteers is amended by reference to the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program to allow for the payment for abortion “when the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest” (Rep. Nita Lowey amendment to House bill).
Other Relevant Provisions
Boilerplate abortion-related restrictions are incorporated in the omnibus including: use of foreign aid funds to promote or provide abortion “as a method of family planning” (Helms amendment), or to conduct biomedical research on abortion (Biden), or to lobby for or against abortion (Siljander).
Several other important provisions are included unaltered: informed consent, counseling, and referral protections (DeConcini, Tiahrt, and Leahy amendments); condom non-disparagement language to ensure that any information on condoms that may be provided is complete and medically accurate; and population and environment guidance.
Premature celebrations should be postponed for now since nothing will be final until both the House and Senate pass the omnibus package and President Obama signs it into law. The continuing resolution (CR) currently funding the federal government expires at midnight tomorrow, but congressional leaders of both parties and both chambers are working hard to get the omnibus bill approved as soon as possible so as to avoid a government shutdown. A short-term CR lasting several days is expected to be necessary to allow time to complete action on the omnibus before Congress leaves for the year. There will be considerable pressure on members of both parties in Congress to not stand in the way of final passage of the omnibus. But as Yogi Berra once famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”