On June 21, over the strong objections of the Bush administration, the House voted to ease the distribution of contraceptives through the U.S. foreign assistance program. The issue before the House was whether to permit an exception to the so-called global gag rule to allow the dissemination of contraceptive commodities to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) overseas based first and foremost on need, rather than on their meeting an ideological litmus test. Under the policy that the president reinstituted on January 22, 2001, foreign NGOs are disqualified from receiving U.S.-donated contraceptive supplies, as well as family planning funding, unless they agree not to use their non-U.S. funds to provide abortion services, refer patients elsewhere for such services or advocate for liberalization of their country’s abortion laws. This was the first vote in the new Congress relating to reproductive health and rights.
Prochoice and antiabortion members of Congress coalesced to make this good faith offer to the Bush administration in the interest of finding common ground on the value of promoting contraception as a means to reducing the need for abortion. Decades of research—as well as common sense—lead to the inevitable conclusion that better contraceptive use is key to reducing women’s risk of unintended pregnancy, which is the underlying cause of the overwhelming majority of the world’s abortions. Indeed, improved contraceptive use is a proven means of reducing women’s recourse to abortion. In Russia, for example, the abortion rate plummeted by 61% between 1988 and 2001— a period when the use of modern contraceptives increased by 74%. In the United States, contraceptive use reduces a woman’s likelihood of having an abortion by 85%. By contrast, there is no evidence that imposition of the global gag rule has had any effect on reducing the need for abortion.
Nevertheless, the White House informed House leaders on June 20 that the president would veto the entire foreign aid spending bill over the exemption for contraceptives because it is “inconsistent with the Administration’s international family planning policy.”
Also during consideration of the FY 2008 foreign aid appropriations bill, the House took a significant step toward allowing for global HIV/AIDS prevention funds (known as PEPFAR) to be allocated based on the evidence rather than politics. The House voted to suspend the requirement that at least one-third of all U.S. HIV/AIDS prevention funding be reserved for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This move came in response to recent assessments from the Institute of Medicine and the Government Accountability Office that the earmark has been hindering overall prevention efforts and the ability of PEPFAR country teams to make funding decisions consistent with the evolution of the epidemic at the local level and with public health best practices.
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