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Line Item Gender Relations

Obama’s budget has mixed implications for women on sex ed, contraception, and HIV/AIDS

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After eight years of President Bush’s draconian policies on women’s issues, President Barack Obama, who received 36 million votes from women, is expected to deliver on the issues that matter to them. But Obama’s middle-of-the-road approach to politics, aimed at gaining bipartisan support, is seen as a worrisome trend by many women’s issues advocates. With the country’s attention turned to the economic crisis, advocates are hoping that Obama’s 2009 appropriations bill and his proposed fiscal year 2010 budget will shed some light on his policy priorities when it comes to women’s issues. As the budget process progresses, Obama’s proposed budget commitments will be challenged by Democrats and Republicans alike; and his commitment to these issues will be measured by his adherence to his stated positions.

Campus Progress has graded Obama’s proposed budget initiatives on our own condom scale. Some of the rankings might surprise you:

1 condom: Fail. Fail, fail, and fail.

2 condoms: Needs major improvement.

3 condoms: Mediocre at best.

4 condoms: Much better!

5 condoms: Awesome beyond recognition.

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Sex Education: An Ambiguous Approach by the New Administration

Illustration by Shannon Ryan

Obama’s position on sex education seems to be in flux at the moment—or, at least, he’s not ready to commit either way. Since the 1980s, the United States government has spent well over a billion dollars on abstinence-only education, which has been proven ineffective. Before entering office, Obama was on record supporting comprehensive sex education, sometimes called “abstinence plus” programs that include age-appropriate information about family planning. Some advocates are cheering the 2009 appropriations bill because it cut abstinence-only education by $14 million and increased family planning funding by $7 million. But the budget still sets aside a whopping $94 million for abstinence-only programs.

Obama’s FY 2010 budget is even more troublesome: It does not specify “comprehensive education,” and instead describes his approach to sex-ed as “community-based and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence based models.” He emphasizes that the programs will “stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically-accurate…information to youth who have already become sexually active.” This vague statement should be a red flag. Why won’t Obama come out in strong support for comprehensive education instead of paying lip service to conservatives by including “community and faith-based efforts”?

Heather Boonstra, a Senior Public Policy Associate at the Guttmacher Institute, says that the language included in the budget was initially “worrisome,” but her organization, along with other comprehensive sex-ed advocates, have conveyed their concerns to the White House. “They gave us indications that, no, there have been no changes in the position, and that they were attempting there to speak in only broad terms and we should wait for the more detailed budget.” Obama needs to show a support for comprehensive education through action rather than words. Until then, it is best to remain skeptical.

Obama Grade: 2 Condoms

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Low-Cost Contraception: Finally a Fix!

The Bush administration slipped a small provision into a deficit reduction bill that effectively tripled birth control prices for college students and underserved populations. The 2005 bill prevented college student health centers and community health centers from selling birth control at reduced prices. Under this provision, birth control went from $10-$20 a month to up to $50 a month for the same supplies. The 2009 appropriations bill included the Affordable Birth Control Act, which fixed the 2005 provision that prevented pharmacies from providing discount birth control supplies to student and community health centers. Republicans, particularly Senator Jim DeMint, opposed this change, calling it an earmark, but the bill has no funding attached to it. It merely fixes the previous provision in the 2005 legislation without costing the federal government any money.

Boonstra says, however, that while the provision was a legislative fix, it will not automatically reduce the cost of birth control. The provision only allows these centers to have the option to negotiate price and “what needs to happen is the negotiation…the prices won’t necessarily come down, unless college campuses go back to the manufacturers and negotiate those prices,” Boonstra said.

Obama Grade: 4 Condoms

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A New International Direction: UNFPA Funding

Illustration by Shannon Ryan

In January, Obama repealed the global gag rule, which lifted the ban on government-funded international non-profits from providing information about family planning services including abortion. This decision was a huge step forward for our nation’s foreign policy. Obama also reversed the Bush administration’s intended cuts to Maternal and Child Health programs in his 2009 appropriations budget. In particular, the bill provides $545 million for family planning aid—an increase of $80 million. Out of that fund, $50 million goes to the United Nations Population Fund, which works “to improve reproductive health, raise the status of women and improve the quality, safety and availability of contraceptives in nearly 150 countries.”

Obama should be praised for his commitment to international family planning and he should be held to that high standard for his 2010 budget proposal. His budget includes funding for Global Health Programs, which include family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention programs. Global Health Programs are important to reducing poverty, untimely death, and violence around the world and are also an essential component of our foreign policy. If Obama continues to prioritize these international programs, the United States will be on its way to regaining its status as an international leader on improving the lives of the world’s poorest citizens. But Obama must continue to back up this commitment with solid funding, lest these initiatives fall to the wayside once again.

Obama Grade: 5 Condoms

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Obama Seeks to Tackle the US’s HIV/AIDS Crisis

President Obama seems committed to confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic which has been growing domestically. According to the Centers for Disease Control, domestic rates of HIV infections are “forty percent higher than estimates.” However, Obama is sending mixes messages about whether his commitment will be translated into tangible efforts. The 2009 budget was quite a disappointment, as it is “‘flat-funding domestic HIV prevention at the [CDC],’ said Carl Schmid, the AIDS Institute’s director of federal affairs.”

While this funding level was a let-down, there is some hope for the 2010 budget. According to Obama’s proposals, he intends to increase funding, by an unspecified amount, for domestic HIV prevention and treatment programs. “The AIDS community is hoping for a national AIDS strategy that would coordinate our efforts on the domestic front and reinvigorate those efforts around AIDS in the United States,” Boonstra said. Obama specifies “underserved populations” as the focus of his new programs, an indication that this new funding stream will try to confront many of the holes in the programs already funded by the federal government.

Obama Grade: 4 Condoms

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More Funding for Family Planning Services for Low-Income Women (We Hope)

Obama’s reaction to Republicans squawking about the inclusion of family planning funding during the stimulus debate left much to be desired. In fact, it was downright contemptible. Facing Republican opposition, he specifically asked Congressional Democrats to remove funding which would have given money to state governments to provide contraceptives to low-income women. According to Boonstra, Obama “essentially put out the word that this was important, but [they] didn’t want to hold up the stimulus bill over it.”

Obama has the opportunity to undo this travesty by including funding for Medicare family planning services in his 2010 budget. His 2010 budget has a small provision which would “expand availability of family planning services under Medicaid.” This provision, also known as the Medicare Family Planning State Option, would “allow states to expand their Medicaid family planning services, including cancer screenings and other preventive care, to more women in need, without having to go through the burdensome Medicaid waiver process.” This funding would provide coverage to 2.3 million low-income women and prevent 500,000 unplanned pregnancies. Further, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that providing contraception to low-income women “would save the federal government an estimated $200 million over five years.” Obama needs to ensure that this provision isn’t trampled by Congressional Republicans, and he needs to keep his commitment to ensuring access to family planning for low-income women.

Obama Grade: 3 Condoms

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Finals: How Many Condoms Did Obama Get?

Out of a total of twenty-five possible condoms, Obama scored eighteen—a passing grade of 72 percent. In the academic world, this stacks up to a C- for the president. There is no doubt that he is committed to progressive issues and to improving the lives of women and girls domestically and around the world. But his rhetoric is not a substitute for real policy solutions, and his commitment must be expressed by a full show of force by the White House. As a progressive president, Obama cannot back down when he encounters inevitable conservative opposition to these programs. During the next few months, Obama should work to improve this grade on all five of the issues, and the final budget should reflect his improvements.

Emma Di Mantova is an Campus Progress Intern and a Senior at American University. She will be attending graduate school in the fall.

Condom illustrations by Mikhaela Reid.

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