After eight years of concerted attempts to undermine family planning and women’s health care, the United States has an advocate for reproductive rights in the White House.
After less than one week in office, President Barack Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to overturn the “global gag rule,” a policy that refused U.S. funding for international health care providers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that performed or discussed abortions.
The global gag rule, formally titled the Mexico City Policy, was originally passed by Ronald Reagan, reversed by Bill Clinton and reinstated by George W. Bush on his first day in office in a misguided attempt to reduce abortions worldwide. All the policy really did was adversely affect family planning, health care and women’s reproductive rights across the globe.
Under the global gag rule, foreign groups could lose funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development for not only performing abortions, but providing referrals, counseling women on abortion options, discussing the risks of unsafe abortions or lobbying for expanded abortion policy — even in countries where abortion is legal, or when a woman specifically asked about it.
Predictably, organizations spearheading health care and family planning services in developing and impoverished nations suffered tremendously.
The international NGO EngenderHealth reported that from 2001 to 2009, “20 developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East lost U.S.-donated contraceptives, and many organizations and clinics were forced to reduce services, lay off staff or shut down entirely.”
Not surprisingly, none of these affected areas experienced a decrease in abortions.
“In fact, the irony is that this policy led to more unwanted pregnancies,” EngenderHealth reported.
However, the policy did manage to effectively disenfranchise innumerable women and families by preventing access to reproductive and medical services, including pesky little things like contraception, HIV/AIDS education, prenatal care and malaria immunizations.
But, of course, that was the point of the global gag rule: To attack reproductive rights and women’s health care from an ideological and political standpoint, regardless of the practical consequences.
In October 2007, the results of a comprehensive worldwide study on abortion conducted by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization (WHO) re-confirmed a fact proponents of the global gag rule continually ignore: Abortion rates are almost the same across the globe — regardless of whether the procedure is legal.
The primary difference between legal and illegal abortions is medical safety and the dangers posed to women. Each year, 67,000 women die of complications from unsafe illegal abortions. Furthermore, Guttmacher and WHO researchers affirmed that the best way to reduce abortions is to increase information and access to contraception.
On the most basic level, it doesn’t make sense to withhold funding that may or may not go toward performing or discussing abortions, because abortion is legal in the United States. It’s hypocritical, nonsensical and counter to the U.S.
ideals of equality and empowerment to deny foreign organizations funding for a service the United States provides it own people.
“We are a country that believes in fairness, democracy, free speech and improving the health and lives of people all over the world,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who proposed an amendment to repeal the global gag rule with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in 2005. “But instead of promoting these values, the global gag rule enforces a dangerous code of silence.”
More importantly, the global gag rule led to increases in dangerous illegal abortions and reinforced unsuccessful reproductive rights policies that disproportionately impacted the people most in need of health care.
To quote President Obama: “It is time that we end the politicization of this issue” — it is time that the U.S. stops wielding its economic power to push a “stale and fruitless” agenda on the world that pays no heed to reproductive rights, democratic health care or women’s safety. It is time that this country upholds its tenets and restores “critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development.”
In overturning the global gag rule, Obama shows a true commitment to preserving and protecting life — one that transcends political posturing and offers practical solutions. Hopefully, this early decision signals a new dawn for the United States, in which family planning, reproductive rights and women’s health care will be reinforced rather than eroded.
Renee Sessions is a senior majoring in creative writing.