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The Latest Attack on Women’s Reproductive Health

Conservatives Attempt to Reinstate the Global Gag Rule

SOURCE: AP/Khalil Senosi

Dr. Aron Sikuku, right, explains family planning pills to Beatrice Ravonga in Kibera Slums, Nairobi, Kenya.

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Last week’s markup of the House’s Foreign Relations Authorization Act was a field day for extreme right-wing gestures on foreign policy and international aid. Conservative representatives passed amendments that would prohibit assistance to countries that take positions at the United Nations opposed to those of the United States, defund the Organization of American States, and cut off funding to specific states from Latin America to the Middle East.

It’s unclear what this right-wing grandstanding is intended to accomplish. The outlandish provisions being inserted by conservative representatives have no chance of being reconciled with the version that the Democratic-controlled Senate and its Foreign Relations Committee will produce.

But it would be a mistake to write off the entirety of the House’s foreign relations funding debate as a circus intended to amuse the conservative base. For the original text of the bill, drawn up by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, includes a provision reinstituting by law the Mexico City Policy—also known as the global gag rule.

The global gag rule—first instated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993, re-imposed by President George W. Bush in 2001, and rescinded again by President Barack Obama in 2009—prevents U.S. family planning assistance from going to organizations that perform or provide information about or referrals to legal abortion services. What’s more, organizations that receive funds cannot use their own money to provide abortion-related information or services, or advocate for liberalized abortion laws. The rule imposes no similar restrictions on advocacy against such laws. When in force, the global gag rule comes on top of the Helms amendment, the 1973 law that prohibits direct U.S. funding of abortions overseas.

Under the global gag rule, these organizations face a choice: either participate in the American right’s global campaign to restrict women’s rights and access to reproductive health care or lose critical U.S. funding.

The global gag rule’s funding restrictions only serves to circumscribe women’s access to safe, quality health care and endanger their lives by penalizing organizations that seek to provide women with access to safe abortions. Women with limited options are forced to seek out abortion providers that may lack necessary medical skills or an environment that conforms to minimal medical standards. These unsafe abortions constitute 48 percent of all abortions, leading to the hospitalization of 5 million women due to complications and the deaths of 47,000 more every year.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 35 of the 56 countries receiving USAID assistance permit abortion without restriction as to reason, or on grounds such as fetal impairment, to protect a woman’s physical or mental health, or socioeconomic hardship. When the global gag rule is in force, groups operating in these countries are prevented from providing women with complete and accurate information about their pregnancy options.

As the Guttmacher Institute points out, there is no relationship between abortion’s legal status and its incidence, but “legal status does, however, affect the safety of abortion.” As a 2007 Lancet study noted, “Unsafe and safe abortions correspond in large part with illegal and legal abortions, respectively.” Preventing reproductive health organizations from talking to women about abortion—much less denying them the ability to actually perform safe abortion—does nothing to prevent unsafe abortions, and jeopardizes women’s health.

And there is clear evidence that access to family planning improves women’s health and overall well-being. Maternal mortality rates see significant reductions when women can control the timing and spacing of their pregnancies. Access to family planning can help women avoid the pregnancy-related complications some 15 million women confront every year. And when women have the resources to control their fertility, they can take advantage of educational and economic opportunities that benefit not only women but their families and communities as well.

In addition, access to modern contraception helps reduce the need for abortions by preventing unplanned pregnancies. As the World Health Organization observes, “Abortion prevalence is higher where the unmet need for family planning is high, contraceptive prevalence is low, and less-effective contraception methods prevail.” In other words, increasing the availability of and access to effective family planning services gives women greater ability to control whether and when to become pregnant.

Preventing U.S. funds from going to local reproductive health organizations that provide information on abortion, refer patients to abortion services, or conduct abortion services themselves does not achieve conservatives’ stated goal of reducing abortions. What it does do is deny women the resources they need to control their reproductive health and their lives. By restricting access to safe abortions, the global gag rule does nothing to address the health risks associated with unintended pregnancy or women’s risk of death or serious complications associated with unsafe abortions.

Given the all-out effort by abortion opponents to enact federal and state-level restrictions on abortion here at home, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that conservatives are attempting to take their crusade against women’s reproductive health and rights global. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s attempt to write the global gag rule into law is conservatives’ latest salvo in the worldwide battle over women’s access to reproductive health care.

While ranking member Howard Berman’s (D-CA) amendment to strip the global gag rule from the foreign affairs funding bill failed along party lines, the absurdity of other amendments conservatives passed means there will be no way to reconcile this farcical legislation with similar legislation in the Senate. But progressives should not be complacent about conservatives’ efforts to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care globally. They will need to hold the line on the international front at the same time they fight against increasing restrictions on women’s reproductive health care at home, and the budget battles that await foreign aid after the debt ceiling negotiations may well be the next front in that battle.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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