Around the globe, millions of women are fighting for their reproductive rights. They are fighting for the right to control how many children they bring into the world. They are fighting for the right to have ready access to contraceptives. And they are fighting for the right to obtain a safe and legal abortion.
In this battle, women are supported by the world’s leading non-governmental organizations specializing in reproductive health care. But the United States refuses to work with these world health leaders, thanks to the mindless Global Gag Rule first instituted by President Reagan, and re-imposed after the Clinton years by our current president. This policy places restrictions on health care workers overseas that they would never have to face if they were based in the United States.
If these overseas groups spend even a dime of their own money advocating for changes in their own nations’ abortion laws, they are ineligible to receive family planning funds from our country. They can’t spend their own money to do what they think is right for women without losing U.S. support.
These same hard-working NGO’s are not just sidelined in the policy debate, they cannot even counsel women about abortion. If a pregnant woman shows up at a family planning clinic in South Africa, the doctor cannot even tell her that abortion is an option without jeopardizing the clinic’s financial support.
Without that support, many of these facilities would have to close their doors forever, depriving women of essential health care services, including screenings for HIV and cervical cancer, and especially the provision of contraceptives for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and abortion.
By gagging the world’s most effective reproductive health care organizations, the President is hoping to reduce the rate of abortion. But that is not happening. The Global Gag Rule is just making abortion more unsafe.
Earlier this month, The Lancet, a highly-respected British medical journal, published a major study of worldwide abortion rates, conducted jointly by the U.N.’s World Health Organization and New York’s Guttmacher Institute.
The results of the study are as eye-opening as a jolt of caffeine in the morning. The study found that in countries in which abortion is legal and countries in which it is illegal, abortion rates are pretty much the same. But there is a shocking difference: where abortion is legal, it is provided in a safe manner. Where it is illegal, abortion is often performed under unsafe conditions by poorly-trained providers.
In fact, an estimated 20 million unsafe abortions are performed every year, almost all of them in countries where abortion is illegal under most circumstances. An estimated 67,000 women die each year as the result of complications from those unsafe procedures – let me repeat that: 67,000 women dead from unsafe abortions each year, often leaving many children behind.
Given these staggering statistics, the United States should be actively supporting NGO’s which are fighting to get rid of unjust laws banning or severely limiting abortion, not shunning them. We should be working organizations like the Family Planning Association of Kenya, the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia, the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana and the International Planned Parenthood Federation – all of these organizations have been barred from getting U.S. family planning funds.
If banning abortion doesn’t lower the abortion rate, what does? The answer is clear: ready access to contraception.
In Eastern Europe – a place I know a little bit about – where the availability of effective contraception has greatly expanded since the fall of the Communist regimes, the abortion rate has dropped by more than 50 per cent.
But because of the punitive provisions of the Global Gag Rule, since 2001 the United States has stopped shipping contraceptives to 20 developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – and many leading NGO family planning providers in other countries have stopped receiving contraceptives. While the Global Gag Rule is being promoted as anti-abortion, it remains at its core anti-family planning.
These are important issues, and they demand from us a constructive response. My good friend from New York, the distinguished Chairwoman of the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Nita Lowey, has done just that. I strongly endorse the contraceptives language in her bill that begins to unravel the Global Gag Rule, and I hope that by the end of the legislative process, it will be completely repealed.
The Global Gag Rule is bad policy and it is doing enormous harm to women around the globe. The sooner we change it, the better for everyone concerned.