Reproductive rights are under attack in the United States and around the world — and I did my best yesterday to fight this.
Restrictive abortion legislation, inadequate contraception access and prohibitive funding to reproductive health care have created a system in which women cannot receive adequate health care. Notably, these restrictions are rooted in religious ideology not backed by science or evidence. As such, it is important to speak to our legislators and make our secular voices be heard so that women can make health choices that are best for them.
On March 22, I had the opportunity to do just that on Capitol Hill. In coordination with Population Connection, an organization that advocates for improved global access to family planning and reproductive health care, I represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation in urging legislators to support science and champion reproductive rights for women around the world. (FFRF’s principal co-founder Anne Nicol Gaylor was an early activist with Population Connection, then known as Zero Population Growth (ZPG). In 1970, she founded the ZPG Abortion Referral Service and made more than 20,000 referrals by 1975.)
Due to the pandemic, this was a digital Capitol Hill Day, but an important one nonetheless. I attended lobby visits with the offices of three elected officials from FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin: Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson and Rep. Mark Pocan. I urged them in these meetings to pass the Global HER Act and support funding for international family planning programs.
Global HER Act
The Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act (Global HER Act) would prevent any future president from imposing the Global Gag Rule. The Global Gag Rule, formally known as the Mexico City Policy, was first introduced in 1984 by President Reagan, referred to as the “Father of the Pro-Life Movement” by the Religious Right. This rule prevents U.S. funding to any foreign nongovernmental organization that provides or even mentions abortion services. This bill has been reintroduced with every Republican president. However, the Trump administration created a new precedent by expanding the already prohibitive Gag Rule to all U.S. global fund assistance, and FFRF submitted a formal public comment opposing this action. Even though the Biden administration rescinded the move on Jan. 28, future presidents may reinstate it with these dangerously new precedents.
Both Baldwin and Pocan have sponsored the Global HER Act, which would repeal the Helms Amendment and prevent the Global Gag Rule from being reinstated by a future president. As part of the United States Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, the Helms Amendment prevents foreign assistance to abortion care. The Global Gag Rule is more important than ever because there are 35 million unsafe abortions each year. Approximately 20 million women receive treatment for complications related to these clandestine abortions.
International family planning and reproductive health programs
Currently, there are 111 million unintended pregnancies each year in developing areas of the world. In fact, there are 218 million women in developing countries who want to prevent pregnancy but do not have access to contraception. When accounting for inflation, funding from the United States for international family planning has remained 30 percent below the 1995 level, while the number of women who are of reproductive age has markedly grown. (Currently, we are at about $610 million in funding.)
Due to the lack of family planning options, millions of women suffer from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. About 300,000 women die from these complications. This Christian nationalist imposition on women’s bodily autonomy and health must end. And researchers have found that universal access to modern contraception could reduce maternal deaths by 25 percent. Additionally, every year 2.5 million infants die in their first month of life.
That’s why it is important for representatives to support $1.74 billion in funding for international family planning programs. This number represents the fair share of the total cost of satisfying the unmet needs of women of reproductive age based on the size of the U.S. economy. Additionally, of this $1.74 billion, we asked that $116 million be allocated to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is an important partner in expanding sexual and reproductive health services. UNFPA makes access to safe and effective contraceptives a possibility and works to ensure that hospitals and health clinics have the appropriate and adequate supplies so that women can have safe pregnancies and deliveries. In fact, between 2009 and 2018, UNFPA helped train more than 100,000 midwives in over 120 countries.
UNFPA also combats female genital mutiliation and cutting, a religious and cultural practice that puts more than 3 million girls at risk for this inhumane procedure. Stopping this is a key priority of FFRF and the Congressional Freethought Caucus. UNFPA has programs in 17 African countries to motivate religious leaders to protect women’s health, engage with government officials and leaders and educate the community. UNFPA fights to promote human rights and promote the status of girls throughout the world.
There is a cruel irony that so many people who claim to be “pro-life” do not support policies and legislation that quite literally save lives. Instead, they uphold religious ideology that is counter to equality, freedom, health and science. My (digital) day on Capitol Hill was an important reminder that it is up to us to champion for these values. Human rights and progress, including women’s reproductive autonomy, demands our secular activism. So make sure that your voice is heard.