Global Gag Rule Tabled — For the Moment

By Renata Maniaci, Government Relations Intern

Women’s reproductive health care advocates can rest easy for the moment, as Congress has passed a resolution to continue funding the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year that does not include such onerous anti-woman provisions as the re-imposition of the Global Gag Rule. Additionally, UNFPA — the United Nations Population Fund, which provides lifesaving support to women, children and families in 150 countries — received a $40 million contribution in the 2011 budget, an annual expenditure which George W. Bush previously diverted to other programs.

Still, we only have a temporary respite because conservatives in Congress have promised that they will de-fund UNFPA and all other international family planning efforts in the fiscal year 2012 budget. So the battle will begin again soon.

Some background: the Global Gag Rule (GGR), also known as the Mexico City Policy, denies women and girls in other countries the right to appropriate medical care by restricting foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. government funding from utilizing their own (non-U.S.) funds to provide any abortion-related counseling, services, referrals or advocacy.

It is this abhorrent policy that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed very hard to reinstate in the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR), which is funding the federal government until Sept. 30. Due in part to public outcry against limiting women’s reproductive health rights, the GGR did not make it into the CR, and women around the world do not have to fear that their clinics will be shut down due to lack of U.S. funding — at least for the next six months.

This “gag” rule, so-called because it restricts free speech and debate on abortion-related issues, has been absent from the global arena since President Obama repealed it his first week in office. The rule traditionally rises and falls again depending on which party is in office. First imposed by the Reagan administration in 1984, the GGR carried through to the end of the first Bush administration. Upon taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order repealing the policy. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he then re-imposed the GGR by executive memo on his first business day in office. It is important to note that this sort of restriction of free speech would not be constitutional in the U.S. and is an anti-democratic intervention in the governing of other nations.

Years of the GGR imposed on developing countries — especially in Africa and South America — have resulted in the closure of countless health clinics in countries where access to safe medical care is scarce or non-existent. These clinics provided a wide range of family planning services, not just abortion care. They served to limit maternal and child death, the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted infections, as well as assure safe abortion services for unintended and life-threatening pregnancies.

Almost all abortion-related maternal deaths occur in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute, approximately 68,000 women die each year as a result of complications of unsafe abortions; and between two and seven million women each year survive unsafe abortions but sustain temporary or permanent physical harm. This number likely rises at times when the Global Gag Rule is in force. WHO estimated that 536,000 maternal deaths (from all causes) occurred worldwide in 2005 (when the GGR was in play), with 99.4 percent of them in developing countries.

A re-imposition of the Global Gag Rule is, indeed, a world-wide policy of “let the women die” that we have seen incorporated in Republican legislation seeking to further restrict access to abortion and family planning in the U.S. It is a fact that the poorer women of the world depend on U.S. funding and sound public health policies for a chance to enjoy their full range of reproductive (and human) rights.

Access to family planning services is one of the most effective means of reducing the need for abortion, and it goes a long way to reducing maternal death from unsafe abortions. This should not be a controversial or even an ideological issue — and we should never allow women’s health to be gagged.

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