Congress must permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule

Two of the greatest crises we face as a country are inextricably linked: the threats to democracy and the threats to sexual and reproductive health care.

The defining characteristic of a democratic society is the opportunity for all its members to fully participate economically, politically and socially. Access to health care—especially sexual and reproductive health care—is essential to ensuring all individuals can fully participate in their societies. That is why sexual and reproductive health and rights are so fundamental to democracy.

The ongoing efforts to weaken voting rights across the country and the threats to Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court are reminders of the fragile fate of two fundamental rights here at home. But while the fate of democracy and reproductive rights is at a tipping point in the U.S., there is hope around the world. From Colombia to Uruguay, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malaysia, Cambodia, Pakistan, and most recently in Ireland, Argentina and Mexico, over the last few decades countries across the globe have liberalized abortion laws.

Last year, the Biden administration issued the first-ever National Strategy for Gender Equity and Equality that prioritizes sexual and reproductive health and rights as key to achieving gender equality. In December, the U.S. hosted the first-ever Summit for Democracy, during which Vice President Harris highlighted gender equalitywomen’s participation and reproductive rights as key to democracy, stating, “I strongly believe the status of women is the status of democracy.”

With ongoing gridlock in Congress and the ticking clock of the 2022 midterm cycle growing louder, the window of opportunity for the Biden administration to make good on their promises for democracy, gender equality and reproductive rights is closing. But one of President Biden’s first executive actions may hold the key to one of the only paths to protecting reproductive rights during his presidency: making his repeal of the Global Gag Rule permanent.

The Global Gag Rule is a U.S. foreign policy that threatens democracies around the world. Under the policy, U.S. foreign assistance comes with strings attached that effectively “gag” groups and halts all existing work providing, advocating for, counseling on or providing referrals for abortion services as a method of family planning, even if those activities are funded by their own, non-U.S. funding. The alternative is to continue to provide comprehensive health care services, including sexual and reproductive health care and counseling, and forgo all funding from the U.S. government.

The policy thus exerts both direct and indirect control over the recipients’ choices about the provision of health care and in so doing diminishes access to health care for women and girls, LGBTQI+ persons, and many other vulnerable communities and individuals. Because access to health care is critical to participation in societies, the policy diminishes opportunities for people to work and contribute to their communities.

As important as it is, President Biden’s repeal of the Global Gag Rule via executive action is temporary and is likely to be reversed by a future Republican administration, as has happened since 1984. This “now you can, now you can’t” presidential policymaking has contributed to a chilling effect on organizations and health care providers around the world who often over-implement the policy for fear of being found non-compliant. Fear of losing critical and irreplaceable U.S. health care dollars has driven some organizations to end health care activities and programs unnecessarily and avoid participation in civil society assemblies, meetings and coalitions.

Because the Biden administration knows the harmful impacts of the Global Gag Rule on health care access and democracy, the president’s National Strategy for Gender Equity and Equality calls for a permanent end to the Global Gag Rule.

It’s time for Congress to permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule. The House included permanent repeal of the policy in their 2022 appropriations bill. Thanks to the leadership of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), similar language is in the Senate appropriations bill that is set to get a vote in the coming weeks.

To be clear, the Global Gag Rule is much more than a reproductive rights or abortion issue. Rather, permanently repealing the Global Gag Rule is a global health issue, a human rights issue, a free speech issue, and yes, a democracy issue. President Biden has done his part and has made his position clear. Now it is up to Congress to end this heinous policy once and for all.

Serra Sippel, chief global advocacy officer at Fòs Feminista, an alliance of NGOs across the Global South that work to advance sexual and reproductive rights.

Tags Abortion Democracy global gag rule Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden women's health care

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