Over the past couple of months, our leaders in Washington have been engaged in a game of economic and political brinkmanship over government spending.
The crisis has been averted for now, but the consequences of this partisan squabble will be long lived, especially for the poor. Proposed spending cuts will hurt them the most, particularly with respect to social programs and Medicaid.
What has gone largely unnoticed with the media frenzy around the federal debt ceiling debate is the fact that the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill that not only guts US family planning efforts abroad, but also restores (and codifies into law) the onerous requirements of the Global Gag Rule.
In their zeal to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to cut funding for overseas family planning programs by $154 million. This cut won’t make even the slightest dent in the current $1.4 trillion deficit, but will condemn millions of women around the world to a short and brutal life of poverty and misery. It will also be an unmitigated economic and political disaster for the American people.
The US currently provides about $600 million in foreign assistance for family planning and reproductive health programs. This money helps organizations in developing countries provide contraception and family planning services to over 200 million poor women.
The proposed 25% cut in funding, made even deeper by the continuing fall of the dollar in the currency markets, will mean that many clinics will be forced to close their doors. Other clinics will be forced to forgo US funding because they cannot or will not follow the free-speech restrictions imposed by the Global Gag Rule. This rule prohibits organizations that receive any US foreign aid from even mentioning the word ‘abortion’ in the context of family planning counseling, regardless of whether or not they actually provide such services.
These cuts and restrictions will thus leave millions of poor women without access to reproductive health and family planning services. Without these services, which include low- or no-cost contraceptives, millions of women in the developing world will experience pregnancies that they neither want nor can afford.
Some of these pregnancies will be terminated, most likely in illegal back-alley clinics where hygiene and post-operative care are an afterthought. Even in countries where selective termination of pregnancy is legal, the cost of obtaining safe and sanitary abortion means that these procedures are out of the reach of many women. Over 20 million unsafe abortions are performed every year, and the women who undergo them often experience severe complications that leave them infertile, crippled or dead.
Many more unwanted or ill-timed pregnancies will be carried to term, but with potentially disastrous physical and economic consequences for women and their families. Pregnancy-related complications are a leading cause of death and disability in developing countries, particularly in those nations where women lack access to family planning programs.
Half-a-million women die in childbirth every year. Fifteen million more experience severe complications that leave them physically disabled, their children dead, and their families reeling from the economic costs associated with care and treatment. Maternal and child morbidity and mortality rates drop markedly, however, when women have unfettered access to contraception.
If our Congressional leaders want to promote a true pro-life agenda, one of the easiest ways to do this would be to continue or increase current levels of funding for overseas family planning programs. Moreover, it would also be in the economic and security interests of the American people.
As access to family planning services improves, so do markers of economic growth and development. Women in poor countries can take greater advantage of business and educational opportunities once they can control the timing and spacing of their pregnancies. Their children are also more likely to attend and to graduate from school, giving them an additional chance to break the cycle of poverty.
Over the last thirty years, those developing countries that have experienced the most rapid economic growth are the same countries that have well-funded and widely-accessible family planning programs. And that is good for the US.
As countries develop economically, they become more stable politically. Their leaders and their citizens become more friendly to American interests and values, particularly if they feel that this growth is associated with US-supported initiatives like family planning programs. Moreover, as countries develop economically, new markets open for American goods and services.
I suspect that foreign aid programs like family planning services are on the chopping block primarily because our leaders do not feel that they promote the economic or security interests of the US, at least in the short term. They would rather spend our increasingly limited resources creating jobs here at home or buying weapons to be used overseas.
I think they are wrong. In the long term, family planning programs like these promote American security and economic interests in ways that are more efficient and cost-effective than providing military aid to Pakistan or tax breaks for US corporations.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on August 4, 2011. It is also available on the WAMC website .]