House OKs Lifting Contraception Aid Ban

Friday, June 22nd 2007, 7:28 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House voted narrowly Thursday to reverse a ban on contraception aid to groups overseas that offer abortions, challenging a pillar of President Bush's foreign aid policy.

If the proposal passes the Senate, Bush is likely to swiftly veto it and be upheld by conservative lawmakers, who say no assistance of any kind should be given to organizations that promote or offer abortions.

The measure, approved 223-201, is intended by the new Democratic majority to crack open debate on a policy it says is failing badly. Initiated by President Reagan in 1984 at a population conference in Mexico City, the policy bars any assistance to organizations abroad that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning.

Democrats say an unintended consequence is an alarming shortage of contraceptives, particularly in poor rural areas.

The bill would help ``reduce unintended and high-risk pregnancies and abortions ... and save the lives of mothers,'' said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who chairs the House appropriations panel that oversees the foreign aid budget.

``It is simply not enough to say you support family planning, so long as the current restrictions remain in law,'' Lowey said.

The House voted to attach the measure to a $34.2 billion bill that pays for State Department operations and foreign aid in 2008.

The spending bill passed by a 241-178 vote. Before it reaches Bush, the measure will have to pass the Senate, which is under control by a much more narrow majority of Democrats.

Lowey initially drafted the legislation to guarantee funds to any group so long as the assistance included funding for contraceptives. Facing stiff opposition, Lowey wrote an amendment that restricted the aid to U.S.-donated contraceptives.

Voting in favor of her amendment to expand contraception aid were 207 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Voting against it were 24 Democrats and 177 Republicans. More than a dozen members did not vote.

The legislation does not affect other aspects of the Mexico City policy and would uphold the ban on other types of assistance to noncompliant groups.

Republicans still bristled at the proposal because they said the donation would free up resources for groups to provide abortions. They also said it would undermine the Mexico City policy, which is intended to pressure organizations to abandon abortion services.

``The Mexico policy exists to draw a bright line between U.S. family planning policy and abortion,'' said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. ``However, it appears that there are some out there who wish to blur this line, (which) is what leads to coercive abortions and forced sterilizations.''

Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., proposed alternative legislation intended to reinforce the existing policy. That was rejected 218-205, with 25 Democrats and 180 Republicans voting to uphold Bush's policy. While Republicans had been doubtful they had enough votes to pass Smith's measure, they were confident they could sustain a presidential veto.

``If we provide either cash or in-kind contributions or anything of value to pro-abortion organizations in other countries, we empower, enrich and enable them to expand abortion,'' Smith said.

In a statement released Tuesday, the administration said the president would veto any legislation ``that weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion.''

For many of the 164 Republicans who opposed final passage of the spending bill, it was an uncomfortable vote because it meant turning down hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance for Israel. But members said they were confident the bill would ultimately be sent to the president without the contraception provision because Democrats did not have the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Members also used the bill to raise concerns about Bush's decision to resume U.S. aid to the Palestinians, highlight human rights causes and chastise the United Nations.

Adopted by a 390-30 vote was an amendment by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., that would reaffirm a long-standing restriction against any entity that does not recognize Israel and does not renounce violence. The measure was mostly symbolic, as it would not necessarily withhold money from Western-backed officials in the West Bank.

The House also agreed to bar U.S. aid from benefiting Saudi Arabia and the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has singled out Israel for investigation of alleged rights violations. The bill also would divert $20 million from the U.N. Development Program, under fire for its aid to North Korea.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who sponsored the measures, said the votes showed ``palpable bipartisan frustration with the slow pace of U.N. reform and the alarming deterioration of the U.N.'s commitment to protect human rights around the world.''