U.S. Foreign Assistance

Saving Women’s Lives

Katie Bolton is PAI’s summer 2008 Social Networking Intern.

Feminist Majority
Foundation
(FMF) president Eleanor Smeal wants women to get angry. “It’s a
pattern… Family planning is being cut,” she declared Thursday morning at the
FMF’s Intern Hill Briefing, “Saving Women’s Lives: The Importance of Funding
for Reproductive Healthcare.” And she’s right. The Bush administration has
systematically reduced women’s access to birth control, sexually transmitted
infection (STI) testing, and pre- and post-natal care both domestically and
internationally since coming into power. USAID funds for reproductive health
have been dramatically reduced. Birth control prices skyrocketed for students and
low-income women in 2007. Nineteen million unsafe abortions are performed
worldwide each year, and 68,000 women die following their unsafe abortion. In
the past seven years, there have been more than 175 votes in Congress that have
chipped away at our right to basic reproductive health services.

Smeal was joined at the briefing by Katy Vedlitz of Planned Parenthood Federation of
America (PPFA)
, Crystal Lander of the Center
for Development and Population Activities
, and PAI’s own Craig
Lasher
, as well as Reps. Hilda Solis
(D-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). Each
speaker highlighted a different area that family planning funds help; taken all
together, it was a striking picture of the callousness and disdain this
administration feels towards women.

Craig Lasher, PAI’s Senior Policy Analyst, was the most
optimistic of the group. With last week’s proposed increases to family planning
funds in both the House
and the Senate,
Craig thinks we may have turned a corner. He spoke positively of the work done
by USAID and UNFPA,
though he pointed out that USAID funding is down 40 percent from its peak in 1995, and
that the US has withheld UNFPA funding for the past seven years.
All this good done despite being underfunded; I wonder what USAID and UNFPA
could do if they had the millions that have been denied to them!

During her brief remarks, Crystal Lander focused on how
broad a category “family planning” really is, and the nuances of the Global Gag Rule. She feels the
current administration did not make reproductive health a priority, and so
women have suffered. However, I would argue that family planning was a huge
priority, just in a different direction. Lander herself pointed out that Bush’s
first action as President was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, which quickly slashed
funding to many international reproductive health organizations. Since then,
the administration has kept rolling back access to family planning resources
worldwide.

Katy Vedlitz of Planned Parenthood addressed domestic
attacks on family planning, specifically women’s access to affordable birth
control. 2007
legislation
eliminated the charitable discount pharmacists used to provide
to colleges and universities, plus some 400 clinics across the country. As
prices jumped from $5-10 per pack to $40-50, use of oral contraceptives
decreased among students and low-income women. “Birth control is basic healthcare!”
Vedlitz insisted, but frankly, she was preaching to the choir on that one. She
was, after all, in a room full of young, mostly female, interns who had
probably felt this price change keenly. Unfortunately, PPFA’s campaign to
restore affordable birth control may have to wait for a new administration to
see real change. In fact, if the rumors that a Bush
regulation would redefine “abortion” to include contraceptives
are true,
things are going to get worse before they get better.

Ellie Smeal was the last panelist to speak, and she took the
most impassioned stance of all the speakers. She condemned the “unnecessary
suffering” inflicted on women, and boiled the discussion down to the almighty
dollar. In a privatized health care system, producers can earn huge profits on
a product produced cheaply, like oral contraceptives. An overlarge population
creates a surplus of laborers willing to work for lower wages, increasing the
profits of manufacturers. Smeal accused the government of allowing supply and
demand to trump the better interests of American women. Like any curious
feminist
, she asked why. Why do Republicans keep cutting family planning
money? Why don’t the Democrats restore those cuts? Why are women’s lives less
valuable than “a couple fighter planes” in an unpopular war?

This list of offenses feels overwhelming when taken in all
at once. It felt even more pressing for me, as I’ve been reading Katha Pollitt’s
collection of columns, Virginity or Death! As the title
suggests, many of these pieces discuss the war on women’s reproductive rights. Katha?
Ellie? I’m angry.

I’ve said a lot, and still managed not to explain why this
matters to PAI. Watch “Abstaining
From Reality
” or “Access
Denied
” on PAI’s YouTube
channel
. The films reveal the limitations of these misguided policies in Zambia,
Uganda and Kenya, but we know that many other countries share the same problems.
Current administration policies fail to meet the needs of millions of men and
women around the world, and women suffer. Although PAI doesn’t accept
government funds, we do advocate for individual access to family planning
methods and reproductive health. But if the organizations we work with are
consistently underfunded, our mission is seriously compromised. It’s time to
make a difference.

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