The House yesterday narrowly approved a measure to reverse a 23-year-old U.S. policy against providing foreign-aid grants for contraception to groups that also offer abortions abroad.
The amendment to the 2008 State Department appropriations bill, sponsored by Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat, passed 223-201. The vote closely followed party lines, with Democrats supporting the amendment by 207-24, and Republicans opposed by 177-16.
President Bush has promised to veto the amendment, which was attached to the $34 billion bill that pays for State Department operations and foreign aid for fiscal 2008.
The legislation seeks to overturn a policy initiated by President Reagan that bars any assistance to organizations that perform or promote abortion abroad as a method of family planning. The policy is often referred to as the "Mexico City Policy" after the population conference where Mr. Reagan announced it in 1984.
Democrats have complained the policy has caused a significant shortage of contraceptives in poor countries; Republicans say Mrs. Lowey's amendment will lead to abortions in foreign countries at U.S. taxpayers' expense.
"We cannot reduce abortions without contraception," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat.
Mrs. Lowey said that by providing easier access to contraceptives, her legislation would help reduce abortions, unintended pregnancies, the spread of HIV and "save the lives of mothers."
"This amendment would advance the Bush administration's stated goal of the Mexico City policy to 'make abortion more rare,' and protect women and children," she said. "It is simply not enough to say you support family planning, so long as the current restrictions remain in law."
Mrs. Lowey initially drafted legislation in such a way that would have guaranteed grants to any group as long as the assistance included funding for contraceptives. In the face of significant opposition to the plan, however, she drafted an amendment that would restrict the aid to paying for contraception.
Republicans still opposed Mrs. Lowey's revised proposal, saying that since money can be moved around within an organization, even aid that could not itself be used for abortions would free group resources for abortion. They also said it would undermine the intention of the Mexico City policy, which is intended to pressure organizations to abandon abortion services.
The measure, if it becomes law, "will clearly open up the U.S. Treasury to fund abortions worldwide," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Republicans also complained that since taxpayer funds aren't used on abortions in the U.S., neither should federal money be spent on abortions abroad.
"The American taxpayers don't want their tax money to be used in any way — directly or indirectly — for abortions," said Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican.
An alternative legislation intended to reinforce the existing policy proposed by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, and Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, was rejected 218-205.
Pro-life groups immediately condemned the passage of Mrs. Lowey's amendment.
"The result of this legislation, if enacted into law, will be to cut current family planning programs in developing nations, the money from those programs will then be sent to organizations committed to abortion," Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said. "Where is the help in that? Where is the compassion?"