The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday night funding most of the government through September and the Department of Homeland Security through February. The bill is expected to pass the Senate in the next few days.
It was a bitterly controversial piece of legislation. Critics on the left, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), refused to support the bill because it radically loosens campaign finance rules and gets rid of an important financial reform in the Dodd-Frank bill. On the right, some said it didn’t do enough to block President Obama’s executive order that temporarily protects nearly five million unauthorized immigrants from deportation.
Less remarked upon has been what the spending bill has to say about lawmakers’ priorities for women’s health. There are some steps forward and some steps backward for reproductive and sexual health issues, but in some ways the bill is most remarkable for adhering to the status quo.
Anti-choice Republican legislators “really laid off a lot of areas they could have gone after, at least in this round,” Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, told Rewire.
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That is, the pots of money for the kinds of family planning programs routinely targeted by conservatives remained untouched, but those programs didn’t get any new funding either.
This could be further evidence of the Republican Party trying to hide its anti-choice stances, as many candidates did in the midterm elections. It could also signal a party biding its time until it takes the majority and is able to push more extreme anti-choice measures like a national 20-week abortion ban.
The so-called “Cromnibus” bill included a long-overdue fix that would make sure that Peace Corps volunteers can finally get equal access to abortion coverage in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.
Right now these volunteers, who often make only a $300 a month stipend and may work in war-torn countries where abortion is illegal, are the only group with federally funded health insurance who don’t get coverage even in these limited, desperate circumstances.
Survivors of rape and domestic violence would benefit when the federal Crime Victims Fund gets a fourfold increase in funding—or, more accurately, when Congress allows the fund to spend four times more of the money it already receives in fines.
That means more money to test rape kit backlogs, and more funding for community organizations that help victims of domestic violence.
For military sexual assault victims, the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program would get $257 million in funding, including $25 million to expand the “special victims’ counsel” (SVC) program, which was created to give victims an ally in court and help them through the reporting process.
Advocates caution, however, that while the SVCs are a good step, they fall short of their promise—SVCs aren’t quite full lawyers for victims, they don’t have the same access to the documents a prosecutor does, and they often face retaliation in the same way victims do.
Funding for fiscal year 2015 will stay the same as it did last year for Title X domestic family planning programs ($286.5 million), international family planning programs ($610 million), and evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention ($101 million).
Women’s health advocates see these numbers as solid, if not necessarily ideal.
They wanted to see at least $300 million for Title X programs, which provide low-income women with key reproductive health-care services. The spending bill falls short of that.
Craig Lasher, director of U.S. government relations for Population Action International, told Rewire that the eventual goal for international family planning and reproductive health is $1 billion in U.S. funding, along with a near doubling of the current $35 million contribution to the United Nations Population Fund.
But with this Congress, advocates are just happy not to see cuts.
“The status quo is a good outcome in the current political environment,” Lasher said.
One funding tweak could create a “step backward,” Boonstra said, by increasing the number of abstinence-only sex education programs on the ground. Money that some states decline to use for these programs can now be reallocated to other states that use them, instead of being reallocated elsewhere or going back to the Treasury.
Another step backward is a $93 million cut (about 1.4 percent) to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which gives food aid to low-income families.
But the status quo is already backwards, and has been for a long time, for groups who struggle to access safe and legal abortion care.
Lawmakers had little appetite this year to even consider lifting several long-standing prohibitions on federal funding for abortions, which hits women of color and poor women the hardest.
“We know that Latinas are more likely to need access to abortion, they’re less likely to be able to afford it, and they’re overrepresented among those who are Medicaid eligible,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, director of public affairs at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, told Rewire.
Women of color are also the most affected by a measure that prevents the District of Columbia from spending its own money on helping low-income women get abortion coverage through Medicaid.
That provision went through in 2011, during the last budget negotiations debacle, when President Obama was quoted telling House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), “John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it.”
This provision is “not only a denial of health care for women in D.C., it’s a double denial of self-determination,” Inez McGuire said.
NLIRH is part of a coalition of dozens of organizations organized under the “All Above All” campaign, which makes a social justice case for repealing the Hyde Amendment and other federal abortion funding restrictions.
The coalition is calling on President Obama to lift these restrictions in his next budget request to Congress, since it’s the last chance he will have to take a principled stand on the issue.
“Oftentimes with the budget process, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and forget we’re talking about people’s lives,” Inez McGuire said.