The State of Play: What’s Now and What’s Next for U.S. Foreign Policy on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice

For better or worse, the U.S. has an outsized influence in the world. Those of us who have worked for years to help shape U.S. foreign policy to be a force multiplier for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice (SRHRJ) globally recognize that the current U.S. Administration and Congress have given advocates an opening that we have not seen before, and momentum is building.

Primarily, this is the first time in my more than 20 years advocating for gender equality and SRHRJ that there are so many people in power representing a diverse range of lived experiences. We’re seeing long-overdue progress on the necessary work of putting the people closest to the issues in the driver’s seat — progress that is essential in paving a new way for the U.S. to advance SRHRJ both at home and abroad, so that we are centering the self determination of people to make their own decisions about their own futures and bodies.

With this leadership in place, the Biden Administration and Congress have already taken meaningful actions that give advocates a much needed salve after four destructive years of the Trump Administration and the devastation wreaked by COVID. Out of the gate, the Administration rescinded the global gag rule and committed to funding UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health and rights agency, and other key global reproductive health programming; and Secretary of State Blinken, in one of his first statements, noted the centrality of sexual and reproductive health and rights to U.S. foreign policy. President Biden also created a White House-level Gender Policy Council with a mandate that takes an intersectional and holistic approach including domestic, foreign and national security policy. And, although there are many more steps before it becomes law, a key committee in the U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a gold star bill that robustly funds global reproductive health programs, doubles support for UNFPA, and addresses both a permanent repeal of the global gag rule and the longstanding harm of the Helms Amendment.

On top of these early actions, the Administration has also shown it understands the importance of symbolism in its support of these issues on the world stage. It sent the highest-ever level representatives to the annual UN meeting on gender equality with Vice President Kamala Harris and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield co-heading the most diverse delegation in U.S. history, on which I had the privilege to serve. Vice President Harris also represented the U.S. at the Generation Equality Forum, the largest gathering on gender equality in more than 25 years, and emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to making gender equality a reality.

These actions are a sturdy combination of mandate, leadership, resources, accountability and structure — a recipe that has the potential to create real change when fully vested. But, more than just reversing damage done, rescinding harmful policies, and signaling our commitment publicly and financially, we have an opportunity to truly modernize U.S. foreign policy to center and fund a holistic gender equality, rights and justice agenda, including by:

Permanently ending destructive policies. We have an unprecedented opportunity to permanently repeal long-standing discriminatory and harmful policy restrictions, like the global gag rule, and make progress towards ending the Helms Amendment, both of which curtail people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world. In fact, the U.S. is the only country in the world that imposes such restrictions on people’s bodily autonomy outside its own borders, and it’s far past time that they are repealed.

“Failing to make the repeal permanent means the shadow of the global gag rule is felt in the field long after it’s lifted by any one president,” said Caitlin Horrigan, Director, Global Advocacy, Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “We have a narrow but meaningful path to get this done — the Global HER Act, a bill that would achieve that, has bipartisan, majority support in the Senate. The House Appropriations Committee already approved and advanced a funding bill that includes language from the Global HER Act. More than 150 organizations have come together to support the Global HER Act, and it’s bigger than just a U.S. constituency — it is a true global movement and coalition.”

As for impact in countries that receive significant foreign aid from the U.S., since the Biden Administration took office, Moses Mulumba, Executive Director, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development, based in Uganda, said: “It’s too early to say that many things have changed. What is actually happening is that NGOs are trying to see what this [rescinding the policy] actually means for them — they have not received funding from the U.S. in years, but their work remains necessary.”

“When you talk about the global gag rule and what we’ve seen in the past years, this is a huge opportunity for the U.S. and other countries to think about decolonizing their global policies,” Moses added. “COVID-19, too, gives an opportunity to reset ourselves, to rethink, to envision a future where we think about SRHRJ not just as a national responsibility, but as a global responsibility.”

Establishing a Feminist Foreign Policy. “A Feminist Foreign Policy is the best next step that this Administration can take to advance a transformative vision for SRHRJ and a number of other intersecting issues,” said Lyric Thompson, Senior Director, Policy and Advocacy, International Center for Research on Women, which has led a diverse coalition effort to define and advance a U.S. Feminist Foreign Policy as:

Feminist Foreign Policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states and movements in a manner that prioritizes gender equality and enshrines the human rights of women and other traditionally marginalized groups, allocates significant resources to achieve that vision and seeks through its implementation to disrupt patriarchal and male-dominated power structures across all of its levers of influence (aid, trade, defense and diplomacy), informed by the voices of feminist activists, groups and movements.

“It’s an opportunity to think about how to use the tools that we have in our foreign policy toolbox — from trade, to defense, to diplomacy, and even areas like immigration — and use a power-based analysis to understand how past decisions have disenfranchised and withheld power, and how we can imagine new ways to engage in a more inclusive policymaking process that would correct for some of those injustices.”

Reimagining U.S. foreign policy with a lens toward reproductive justice. There is a long and rich history of reproductive justice organizing within the U.S. resulting in real change at the local, state and federal levels — but U.S. foreign policy is behind that curve and even replicating harmful domestic policies through foreign aid. Even in the context of prior progressive U.S. Administrations, reproductive justice has never been the American approach to global engagement on health and gender policy, nor for sexual and reproductive health programming.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Kelly Davis, Vice President, Global Birth Equity and Innovation, National Birth Equity Collaborative. “There’s some cleaning house the U.S. needs to do before we can re-establish ourselves as a leader. We need to focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights and well-being … [and] go beyond the unilateral focus on abortion and contraception access as the main policy agenda — these are essential, but so is ensuring that every person that gives birth across the globe not only survives but thrives and is able to live the life they dream about. We have to listen to the most marginalized people — remove the middleman and ask them about the context of their lives to inform policy. They are the very folks that need to be deciding the policies and practices that their nations need to advance SRHRJ.”

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity but the clock is ticking: With slim pro-SRHR majorities in the House and the Senate and the 2022 congressional elections on the horizon, our movement may only have less than two years in which to seed the bold and essential policy change we seek.

Hear more from the experts in the webinar briefing: The State of Play: U.S. Foreign Policy on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.

Executive Director, Universal Access Project — striving for a world where all people can realize their sexual and reproductive health and rights.