By: Minnie Jang
“Even with reductions in funding, we will continue to be the leader in international development, global health, democracy and good governance initiatives and humanitarian efforts.” I paused to copy down Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s words in my notebook, each pen stroke brimming with skepticism. Listening to Secretary Tillerson deliver his opening testimony at the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on the President’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, released in late May, I kept my ears perked for any mention of global health funding, specifically international family planning assistance. Prior to attending the hearing, my first few weeks interning at Champions of Global Reproductive Rights (PAI), a reproductive rights organization based in Washington D.C., had prepared me well, with all the background and vocabulary I needed to understand relevant policies that might be discussed.
For the most part, topics cycled through Russian sanctions, North Korean nuclear weapons, and extremist threats in the Middle East, with Representatives from both parties expressing concern over the proposed 32% cut to the State Department’s programming and how it would affect the United States’ diplomatic agenda. Unemotional in demeanor, Secretary Tillerson responded by acknowledging the “difficulty” of these choices but emphasizing the need to reallocate money more efficiently while calling upon other countries to step up as well. However, these justifications rang somewhat hollow in the stale air of the committee’s chamber, as a theme began to emerge from the questioning: A president’s budget request isn’t just a list of dollar signs and numbers. It’s a clear demonstration of an administration’s priorities--a reflection of values.
With a proposed elimination of all international family planning assistance, a total of nearly $600 million, this FY18 budget request makes especially evident that the Trump administration does not place value on the reproductive health, rights, and wellbeing of women. In addition to slashing global health accounts in the budget, the administration has already zeroed out $32.5 million of funding for critical sexual and reproductive health programs, like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and dramatically expanded the highly restrictive Mexico City Policy, more commonly known as the Global Gag Rule. This executive memorandum places eligibility requirements on all foreign NGOs receiving U.S. funding by limiting their use of any non-U.S. funds to support abortion-related activities. With far-reaching effects on health sectors outside the immediate sphere of reproductive health, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB, the policy’s harmful impact will result in millions of more unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and maternal deaths.
Researching these policy changes while working with the Advocacy Team at PAI this summer, I have been struck by the extent to which attacks on women’s bodies and autonomy are so often brandished as political weaponry. In the developing world, 214 million women have an unmet need for contraception, 43% of pregnancies are unintended, and maternal mortality is still the leading cause of death for adolescent girls. Yet, even with these lives hanging in the balance as lifelines of support are stripped of funding, Secretary Tillerson can still avow to a room full of Congressional members that the United States’ commitment to global health issues will remain undiminished.
Albeit discouraged by such brazen claims that belie administrative actions, I have felt extremely fortunate to learn from and work alongside an organization that promotes a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health, and has entered this challenging new policy atmosphere with energetic and impressive resolve. While the Trump administration’s values may not align with PAI’s mission, I am confident that with champions of reproductive rights working tirelessly in the field, support for the health and wellbeing of women worldwide will defiantly persist.
Minnie Jang is a senior in Currier House studying History & Literature and Global Health & Health Policy. This summer she worked with PAI, a non-profit organization that works with both policymakers in Washington D.C. and international partners to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights for women around the world. Her placement was co-sponsored through the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Institute of Politics.