The Onslaught Begins: Coburn, Wicker, DeMint Attack the Omnibus

Jodi Jacobson

Having decided that a worn-out idea is better than no idea at all, Senate Republicans have turned to their tried and untrue attacks on reproductive health programs in the 2009 Omnibus spending bill.

The onslaught begins. 

Having decided that an old-worn out idea is better than no idea at all, Senate Republicans have turned to their tried and untrue baseless attacks on sexual and reproductive health programs in the FY 2009 Omnibus spending bill.  If the bill does not pass by Friday, March 6th, the government will have to operate under a "continuing resolution," leaving it without funding essential to a full economic recovery and without funding for programs urgently needed by those suffering from the current crisis.  But for the far right, apparently no ideological position is too shallow and no misrepresentation too outrageous to prevent them from wreaking havoc on this country or to mitigate against their purely political shenanigans.

Take the case of the amendment just submitted by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.  This amendment seeks to strike the earmark in the omnibus bill for the "Affordable Birth Control Act (ABC)."

Only one small problem: the Act is not an earmark.

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An earmark sets aside money for a specific program or purpose, like the earmark for more than $200 million dollars for disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that has yet to make it to Senator McCain’s top-10 hit list of outrageous earmarks and for which no amendment to strike has yet been introduced.  I keep waiting.  

By contrast, the Affordable Birth Control Act, attached to the omnibus, is a no-cost provision.  There is no federal funding attached.  Hence no earmark to remove.

The ABC Act is instead a technical correction to an earlier piece of legislation, allowing pharmaceutical companies to offer nominally priced drugs to college and university health clinics and family planning health centers without penalty – as they had done for decades before a change to the law went into effect in 2007 and unintentionally affected access to birth control at these centers.  The Act does exactly what it says: It makes birth control affordable.  Affordable birth control leads to fewer unintended pregnancies which leads to fewer abortions.  Fewer unintended pregnancies reduce social and economic costs.  This type of provision would appear to be a favorite of both social and fiscal conservatives alike.  But…we’ve been here before.

As a so-called pro-life politician who might want to help women avoid unintended pregnancies, why is Senator DeMint wasting his and the country’s time on this?  Who knows. 

But the charade does not stop there.  Next is the case of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), another in the roster of favorite monsters under the bed of the far right wing of the GOP.

UNFPA is an international
development agency that:

"promotes the right of every woman, man and
child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports
countries in using population data for policies and programmes to
reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every
birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl
and woman is treated with dignity and respect.’

Speaking in favor of the Wicker amendment, Sen. Tom Coburn repeats debunked UNFPA accusations on the senate floor.

During the Bush Administration, the U.S. refused to fund UNFPA, claiming it was in violation of the Kemp-Kasten Amendment.  Passed in 1985, Kemp-Kasten denies federal funding to organizations or programs that, as determined by the President, support or participate in a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.  Under direction from President Bush, the State Department argued that UNFPA was in violation of Kemp-Kasten as a result of its work in China, a country known for its violations of women’s rights.

But here is another small problem: UNFPA has never been found in violation of Kemp-Kasten in actual fact.  The Administration just made it up.  Honestly.

Just look at the State Department website.  In 2002, the Bush White House sent a blue-ribbon team to evaluate UNFPA’s work in China.  Upon its return, the team published a report, concluding:

"We find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported
or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or
involuntary sterilization in the PRC.


"We therefore recommend that not more than $34 million which has already been appropriated be released to UNFPA."

In fact, the same team–and others–found that in those areas of China in which UNFPA was operating, women had expanded choices for reproductive and sexual health care.  Moreover, and this is critical, UNFPA does not promote, support or provide abortions, making it difficult for the agency to participate in coercive abortion.  So we have consistently defunded on ideological grounds an organization the mission of which is to expand voluntary family planning and maternal health services in places where women have little or no access.

To immunize UNFPA against future political attacks such as these, the House appropriations bill contained language ensuring funding for UNFPA for specific activities, irrespective of what kinds of determinations might be made under the Kemp Kasten Amendment under different Administrations.  Funding would support UNFPA in:

  • providing and distributing equipment, medicine, and supplies,
    including safe delivery kits and hygiene kits to ensure safe
    childbirth and emergency obstetric care;
  • making available supplies of contraceptives for the
    prevention of unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually
    transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS;
  • reestablishing maternal health services in areas where
    medical infrastructure and such services have been destroyed or limited
    by natural disasters, armed conflict, or other factors; and
  • promoting access to basic services, including clean
    water, sanitation facilities, food, and health care, for poor women and

The bill notes clearly that none of these activities could be used to fund programs in China.

These facts did not stop Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi from introducing an amendment to the omnibus that would strike the House language enabling UNFPA to aid women seeking contraceptive or safe delivery services, nor Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma from completely twisting the facts on UNFPA in a statement on the Senate floor.

Coburn, a "family practice obstetrician" first misrepresented the State Department findings on UNFPA in his speech on the Senate floor. 

Appearing on Fox News Sen. Tom Coburn misinforms about UNFPA’s role in China and Bush’s midnight HHS “conscience” regulation.

Couching his comments in the rhetoric of "women’s right to choose," (which Coburn does not support), he went on to complain that the:

"United Nations family planning money — is going to be used for
coercive abortion and coercive sterilizations.  There’s no question that [UNFPA] will mix this
money and we will fund forced abortion in China."

On Fox News, he said:

"The bill we have on the floor right now takes American money and uses
it through the United Nations fund to perform abortions and
sterilizations in China."

Again, UNFPA does not fund, promote or provide abortion services, and no State Department or other investigation has ever proved that UNFPA supports coercion in China or aids and abets China’s policies.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, if anything, the fact that the Chinese government owns so much of our national debt might indicate we are funding the Chinese government family planning program directly, never mind UNFPA.  But that is obviously a different blog.

However, Coburn’s misrepresentation of the facts does not stop there.  In the same appearance on Fox News this morning, he touts his status as a physician to falsely portray the effects of reversing the HHS regulations put in place by President Bush last December and now being reversed by the Obama Administration, and comparing the situation of doctors under Obama’s proposed health care plan as that of physicians coerced by the Chinese government to perform procedures to which they are opposed.

In the interview, Coburn claims that physicians in programs accepting federal money will be forced to “give birth control pills to an 11-year-old girl” and to provide abortions against their will. In fact, laws already in place clearly indicate that no health care provider may be forced to provide abortions if they object. As for giving an 11-year-old girl birth control pills, well, the Senator and I disagree on what rights should be extended to the patient’s conscience and her assessment of her own health needs.

While this is now routine, it is incumbent upon all of us to ask these politicians: Where is all this getting us?  Is it reducing the number of unintended pregnancies?  Are these politics of obstruction and misrepresentation leading to prevention of even a single sexually transmitted infection?  Are these tactics preventing the spread of HIV, or enabling women to gain access to needed health care?

The answer, obviously, is no.  Which is why it is so increasingly obvious that the issue of abortion is a smokescreen for an agenda that is at its base about limiting the rights of women to make choices about sex, marriage, motherhood and ultimately about political voice and participation.

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