Two weeks ago, the Senate again voted to repeal George W. Bush’s “global gag rule” policy. This policy denies federal family planning funding to any foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) that uses its own, separate money to fund any program relating to abortion. This ranges from programs that perform the actual operation to programs that provide abortion counseling and education. Even organizations that include abortion as part of overall health education are denied funding. This international ban was initiated in 1984 by President Reagan and repealed in 1993 under President Clinton. Upon his arrival in office in 2001, George W. Bush reinstated the rule, depriving international family planning organizations such as the U.N. Population Fund of millions of dollars used to promote family planning and STD prevention.
The Senate has opposed this bill in the past, but a lack of support from the House of Representatives has resulted in its failure up until now. In light of this most recent Senate vote, the House will soon take up its own version of the bill. The House needs to take its cue from the Senate and vote to repeal this restrictive policy.
The global gag rule has widespread negative effects on reproductive health and women’s health in general. The global gag rule affects international family planning and population funds, cutting necessary money from international aid programs such as the UNFPA and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. As the United States is one of the major economic players in the global community, this ban has had drastic effects on family planning efforts in foreign countries. Since 2001, when the policy was instated, the UNFPA alone lost $34 million dollars promised by the United States.
Despite the support of many other nations, international family planning efforts are severely hampered by the loss of the U.S. funding. This, in turn, results in inferior health care for women. Since this policy inhibits legal and safe abortion services in numerous foreign countries, many women have resorted to unsafe abortions when facing an unintended pregnancy. Especially in developing nations — where poverty can severely limit the number of children that a family can support and birth control is unavailable — abortion is the only option left to women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. As these women are forced to terminate their pregnancies illegally and dangerously, many die, adding to the more than 80,000 women who die each year from unsafe abortions.
Beyond these direct effects, however, the global gag rule severely hampers efforts to promote knowledge, use and availability of birth control in developing nations. In January 2001, the International Planned Parenthood Federation alone lost $8 million in U.S. government funds used for providing contraception abroad for the years 2001-2003. Family planning programs in Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia and across the world have suffered similar losses. Not only does this increase the number of unwanted pregnancies, but it also increases transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. Many family planning clinics that provided HIV/AIDS and STD care have had to close, and family planning providers are unable to work to provide necessary information and input about effective health care solutions to the AIDS epidemic.
The frustrating fact is that resources are available to prevent unwanted pregnancies, STDs and AIDS. Not only do we have the resources, but many women abroad want to be able to plan when and how many children they will have, protect themselves from STDs and exercise control over their own bodies. If the recipients are willing and the resources are available, the only barrier is a moralizing ideology in the United States that prevents the proper funds from being released. We must understand that this is not a matter of teaching women abroad moral lessons about abortion, but rather an issue of world health and safety. By allowing the global gag rule to cut off funds to international family planning programs, we are unfairly forcing a choice on women that they have every right to make for themselves.
Rachel Criswell, a sophomore in Branford College, is a global intern for Planned Parenthood CT and a member of the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale.