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Global Health: Obama Lifts “Global Gag Rule”

Categories: East Asia, North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Philippines, South Africa, U.S.A., Uganda, Health, Human Rights, Women & Gender, Youth

In his first week in office, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted a policy popularly known as the “Global Gag Rule.” [1] The move is being applauded by women's rights and public health groups, as it will reinstate funding to international family planning programs globally.

The policy, also known as the Mexico City policy, bans U.S. government funding from going to overseas family planning groups and clinics that perform or promote abortion or lobby for its legalization. Obama lifted the ban one day after the 36th anniversary of Roe versus Wade, the case that legalized abortion in the U.S. The policy was created in 1984 and has been tossed back and forth between presidents ever since. A blog post on South-South elaborates [2]:

“The Global Gag Rule [also known as the “Mexico City Policy” or specifically, The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151b(f)(1))] denied United States family planning funds to foreign NGOs that use their own private, non-U.S. dollars to counsel women, make referrals for abortion, or perform abortions. It even denied U.S. funds to NGOs that expressed support for laws to make abortion safe and legal. The Global Gag Rule was in effect from 1985 until 1993, when it was rescinded by President Clinton. President George W. Bush reinstated the policy in 2001, where it was in effect until Friday, 23 January 2009.”

Critics have dubbed the ban the “Global Gag Rule” because of how it restricts groups overseas from participating in the abortion debate in their home countries. Texas in Africa points out [3] that another problem with the policy is that its restrictions are too broad.

“The Global Gag Rule doesn't take a country's policies on abortion into account. Instead, it blocks funding from any organization that supports abortion rights anywhere in the world. That means if Planned Parenthood operates a clinic in rural Uganda that gives advice on family planning and provides prenatal screening, it loses funding when the Global Gag Rule is in effect because of its pro-choice stance on policies in the U.S. This happens regardless of the fact that abortion is illegal in Uganda unless it involves preserving the mother's life or health.

When the Bush administration reinstated the Global Gag Rule in 2001, clinics all over Africa lost all of their funding. In many places, especially in Kenya and Ghana, it meant that tens of thousands of people lost their only access to health care. Period.”

In light of this, many bloggers are praising Obama's move and the potential impact it will have on reproductive health and family planning issues worldwide. Danie, Danie, Danie believes [4] we should be thanking Obama, while Arash Kardan blogs [5]:

“Desperately poor women with high risk pregnancies won’t have to die because their doctor can’t tell them about termination options. Many will have more access to safe abortion care, and won’t die or face permanent injury due to risky do-it-yourself procedures. Women won’t have to get pregnant because their local birth control clinic had to choose between no funding or substandard, dishonest care, and subsequently closed down…This is what change can mean. Thousands of women’s lives saved. And after the past 8 years of this deadly policy, it’s about time.”

However, many anti-abortion groups have condemned the move, arguing, for instance, that U.S. taxpayer dollars shouldn't be spent supporting abortion and that this opens the door to more abortions worldwide. The Vatican has spoken out [6] against Obama's decision, and the move has raised fears in some countries impacted by this funding. The blog Mike in Manila discusses [7] the reaction in the Philippines:

“There are fears that now US funds will be released here in Asia as well to fund programs towards a global legalization of abortion. Some pro-Abortion groups have lobbied to tie in US Aid to legalization of abortion in the developing world.

A move that greatly concerns members of the CBCP [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines] in the country who have called on Philippine-Americans of all faiths to signify their voices against the new executive order as well as for a campaign by them to elected members of the house and senate to be emailed and called by Catholics all over to world to ensure that the ‘pro-death and pro-abortion’ stance of the extreme left of American politics is not pushing to impose abortion supportive or legalization policies to the rest of the world.”

However, Nicholas, posting on Staying Left, Living and Driving in South Africa, points out [8] that the choice to have an abortion isn't always clear cut in the countries that need this funding:

“When thinking about abortions, especially in developing countries, the arguments seem quite compelling. In sections of the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa, up to 50% of pregnant women are HIV+. If my work were successful, we could reduce transmission of HIV from mother to baby into the single digits, instead of 30+% in most parts of the country. However, that means we'd have carefully execute a number of steps in a process without faltering. Given the fragility of the health system, the likelihood of passing HIV to the baby is quite high, and if I were the pregnant one, its not a roulette game I'd want to be playing.”

Image of The Abortion Debate [9] by Better In the Basement [10] on Flickr.