Ending the global gag rule

ENDING THE GLOBAL GAG RULE…. The LA Times reports this morning that one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president will be “to lift a rule that prevents federal money from going to international family planning groups that counsel women on abortion or perform the procedure.”

This seems to be something of a recent tradition. One of Bill Clinton’s first acts as president was to lift the global-gag rule, and eight years later, one of George W. Bush’s first acts as president was to bring it back. Obama is apparently poised to keep the trend going.

It’s probably worth noting that Bush didn’t exactly know what he was doing when he acted on this issue. Soon after his inauguration, Bush met with a group of Roman Catholic bishops in the White House to tout his support for the “the Mexico City” policy, which got its name because Ronald Reagan launched the ban in Mexico City in 1984. Bush was anxious to show his support for issues of direct concern to the church, and was overheard by a live microphone that he didn’t know was piping his remarks directly into the White House press room.

The president had just signed an executive order on the policy, literally just days prior to speaking to the bishops, but he clearly had no clue what he’d just done. Bush ended up bragging about “the money from Mexico, you know, that thing, the executive order I signed about Mexico City.”

That’s not even close to what this policy is all about.

The “Mexico City” policy prohibits US dollars and contraceptive supplies from going to any international family planning program that provides abortions or counsels women about their reproductive health options. The policy isn’t about money going to pay for abortions. Even those groups that use only private funds for abortion services — where abortion is legal — are barred from assistance. This is money going to family planning programs. […]

[N]ot only are organizations that provide or counsel about abortion services affected; those that dare to take part in a public discussion about legalizing abortion are also affected (hence the name “global gag rule”)…. This policy has nothing to do with government-sponsored abortions overseas. Ten years before the gag rule was in place the law strictly prohibited that. This policy is about disqualifying prochoice organizations from receiving US international family planning funding.

Under Bush’s policy, organizations that play a vital role in women’s health are forced to make an impossible choice. If they refuse to be “gagged,” they lose the funding that enables them to help women and families who are cut off from basic health care and family planning. But if they accept funding, they must accept restrictions that jeopardize the health of the women they serve.

The most tragic ramifications have been felt in the developing world. In Kenya, for example, two of the leading family planning organizations have been forced to shut down five clinics dispensing aid from prenatal care and vaccinations to malaria screening and AIDS prevention. Kenya’s experience is common, according to “Access Denied,” a report on the impact of the global gag rule on developing nations. Researchers found that programs for rural communities and urban slums have been scaled back by as much as 50 percent. As a result more women are turning to unsafe abortion — a leading cause of death for young women in much of Africa — because they lack access to family planning information and essential contraceptive supplies.

In the 1990s, the United States helped lead on international family planning, promoting sustainable development, empowering women, and saving lives. If Obama acts today to end the gag rule, we can again.