The good news is that recent efforts to expand family planning access globally have been going exceedingly well.  One example is Family Planning 2020, the global partnership supporting the rights of women and girls to freely decide whether and when to have children, which reported 77 million unintended pregnancies were averted, and 125,00 women’s and girls’ lives were saved in 2013 alone.

The bad news is that this important work saving and improving lives could be severely undermined by Congress — specifically by the House which is moving an FY16 spending bill forward that includes dramatic cuts to international family planning funding and an attempt to make the “global gag rule” permanent. When in place, the gag rule interferes with the doctor-patient relationship, limits free speech, and impedes women’s access to health services — including safe, legal abortion. It disqualifies many of the most experienced family planning organizations around the world from U.S. funding — disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable women and girls on the planet.

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Also known as the Mexico City Policy, the global gag rule has played politics with women’s health and lives for over 30 years.  While the Helms Amendment and other laws already restrict U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortions as a method of family planning, the global gag rule goes a step further to prevent any organization receiving U.S. international family planning funds from even providing information, referrals, or services for legal abortion or advocating for access to abortion services in their country — even with the organization’s non-federal money.  

If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute; haven’t I heard this before?”  You are quite right. Since this destructive policy was put in place in 1984 by President Reagan by executive order, it has been lifted by every Democratic president and reinstated by every Republican president. 

President Obama rescinded the global gag rule in his first week in office, so the policy is not currently in place.  However, it would become permanent if the FY16 State, Foreign-Operations funding bill proposed in the House becomes law — so it’s essential to defeat the bill with the current provisions and ensure the Senate follows suit.  The White House Office of Management and Budget agrees, expressing “serious concern” in a public letter to the House Appropriations Committee Chair about the bill, including its "highly problematic ideological riders." First listed among them is the global gag rule.

It’s bad enough that this harmful policy devastates the lives of women and girls abroad.  It also disrupts the work of health care providers on the ground since it requires them to devote precious resources to either setting up or dismantling projects and personnel, depending on who is in the White House.  In a time of fiscal constraint around the globe, U.S. policy effectively forces those with limited budgets abroad to waste precious resources that should be spent on lifesaving health care work.

The harm caused by this policy is serious and significant.  When it was last in effect, a leading community health organization in Ghana saw a 50 percent rise in women seeking treatment for complications from unsafe abortions as a direct result of eliminated family planning funding.  It also bears mention that the policy is anti-democratic since it prevents citizens from freely participating in their own country’s democratic process as a condition of receiving U.S. funding.

We can permanently end this dangerous policy once and for all by passing the Global Democracy Promotion Act, which was re-introduced in the Senate in March, and introduced in the House this week with broad support.  This legislation would block a future anti-women’s health president from reinstating the global gag rule.

Congress has the power to cease the absurd, needless, and cruel back-and-forth maneuvering by defeating the measures included in the House FY16 funding bill for the State Department and also permanently ending the global gag rule by passing the Global Democracy Promotion Act.  Through these dual efforts, Congress can protect women’s health and democracy to ensure that women abroad get the family planning assistance they desperately need and deserve.

Singiser is vice president for Public Policy and Government Relations at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Frett is executive director of Planned Parenthood Global.