The global gag rule does nothing to protect life

The global gag rule does nothing to protect life
© Greg Nash

Nine years ago, the U.S. rescinded a cruel policy that denied life-saving health-care to thousands of people around the world. By repealing the Mexico City Policy (also known as the “global gag rule”), we paved the way for reproductive healthcare providers to access funds that had been withheld from them for years. With those dollars, providers gave their clients desperately needed care for themselves and their families — services that included contraceptives, maternal care, and HIV/AIDS prevention.

There was one thing that providers still could not do. By law since 1973, no organization or health care provider is allowed to use U.S. federal funds to pay for abortions as a method of family planning overseas. That’s not ideal, but with the gag rule rescinded, organizations that did provide abortions could still seek alternate funding for those services while using U.S. aid to provide other care to clients.

These health care providers could also discuss abortion as a component of comprehensive reproductive health care without jeopardizing funding for all of their other activities. And people in some of the most resource-starved areas of the world benefitted.


That is until this time last year.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: 'White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group' National Enquirer paid 0,000 for Bezos texts: report Santorum: Trump should 'send emails to a therapist' instead of tweeting MORE made one of his very first priorities in office to strip these non-U.S. organizations of this critical funding. By reinstating the global gag rule, organizations that receive U.S. global health funding cannot use their own money to so much as even counsel on legal abortions. He also expanded the policy to negatively impact international health programs for HIV, maternal and child health, malaria, family planning, and Zika.

If a client comes to the clinic asking about pregnancy options, they cannot tell them where to go to obtain the procedure as a method of family planning. They cannot offer any guidance about selecting a safe provider. They cannot counsel a client that abortion is an option if they determined carrying a pregnancy to term would put their health at risk.

The choice for organizations and clinics is to either provide inadequate and incomplete health care to their clients, or to sacrifice U.S. funding and drastically cut back on their services. In many cases, the providers choose the latter. They refuse to deny their clients full care, but now they cannot provide it to as many people who need it. Some providers had to close their doors altogether.

A 2010 study from the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School found the much smaller global gag rule enacted under George W. Bush negatively affected Ethiopia’s efforts to mitigate high rates of unsafe abortion. The report found that organizations that could not comply with the global gag rule lost their USAID funding, which resulted in loss of service via clinics, contraceptive supplies, technical support, and equipment.

Organizations that did not comply were prohibited from attending nongovernmental organizations (NGO) meetings funded by USAID, thus inhibiting cross-organizational information sharing about maternal mortality, supply chains, and clinical practices. Providers in clinics who complied with the global gag rule were unable to give their clients accurate medical information, resulting in women losing trust in their providers.

The global gag rule does nothing to protect life. Make no mistake about it: The global gag rule costs lives.

It is not rooted in any kind of sound science or medical principles. It has not been found to reduce the incidence of abortion. In fact, it has been associated with an increase in abortion rates.

Beyond the complications of forcing those who need abortions to explore more dangerous options, the reduction in overall reproductive services means fewer people with access to contraception, safer sex, basic education on pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases, or care for infants and their new parents.

In short, the rule jeopardizes all of those whom its proponents claim they wish to help. It’s not just an assault of free speech that should never be sanctioned by U.S. funds: it’s an assault on overall human rights.

A year of this terrible policy is too much. Last year, the State Department promised to conduct a six-month review. Global health, human rights, LGBTQI rights and women’s rights groups submitted comments documenting early harms of the global gag rule.

The Swedish government also submitted comments on the impact the policy is having on recipients of Swedish aid. It is now months beyond the reporting deadline, and there is no word from the State Department about what it intends to do with the information it has received on the harms of the policy.

Given peer-reviewed studies and the submissions to State Department have already documented the harms of this horrible policy, it is clear the Trump Administration is knowingly putting lives at risk. The global gag rule is about politics and ideology in the worst way – as it has been for the previous 16 years the policy was in existence, only now it’s much worse.

If President Trump continues to ignore the evidence and will not rescind the rule, then Congress must take action. The Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act — introduced with bipartisan support — would end the global gag rule for good.

Organizations, hospitals and clinics around the world would be free to give their clients — particularly women and girls — the health care and counseling they deserve.

Whether through executive or legislative action, it’s time for the dangerous and harmful global gag rule to come to an end once and for all.

Margaret Huang, an advocate for human rights and racial justice for more than two decades, she is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. Serra Sippel is the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and leads the organization's advocacy efforts to advance gender equality by promoting the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls globally.