What would a developing world without enforced silence on abortion and contraception look like? We may find out, now that the US Senate narrowly voted (53 to 41) to repeal the indefensible Global Gag Rule, which denies US aid to foreign groups that provide abortions, referrals to abortion providers or counseling related to abortion, even if the group funds those services with its own money. (Since 1973, no US funds have been used to promote or provide abortions overseas.) Because US aid is such a prominent source of funds to women's health organizations worldwide, the gag rule is a de facto worldwide anti-abortion policy.
The policy was enacted by Ronald Reagan, repealed under Bill Clinton, and reinstated by George W. Bush (on his very first day in office). The repeal was included as an amendment to the annual US foreign aid bill, which states:
In determining eligibility for assistance authorized under part I of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961... foreign nongovernmental organizations shall not be ineligible for such assistance solely on the basis of health or medical services, including counseling and referral services, provided by such organizations with non-United States Government funds if such services do not violate the laws of the country in which they are being provided and would not violate United States Federal law if provided in the United States...
While the Senate vote was short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto of the entire $34 billion foreign aid bill by President Bush, it reveals newfound determination among legislators (mostly Democrats and some Republicans) to overturn US laws that harm reproductive rights and safety overseas. It also gives new hope to family-planning proponents that the loathsome law will eventually be overturned. Experience suggests that the law didn't even achieve its overt aim of reducing abortions: according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, barring US aid to "health clinics that provide a wide range of safe and effective family-planning services can only lead to more, not fewer, abortions. Cutting funding for contraception diminishes access to the single most effective means of achieving [abortion opponents'] purported goal."
With such aid reinstated, many of the half-million deaths that occur because of pregnancy and childbirth--almost all of them in the developing world, many of them teenagers -- might well be prevented. Funding family-planning services abroad could also help prevent some of the 52 million unplanned pregnancies, 29 million abortions, 500,000 maternal deaths, and 75,000 deaths from unsafe abortions that occur worldwide every year. Making contraceptives availabile could also stem the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, for which treatment is costly and in short supply in poor parts of the world's poorest areas.
Having too many children too early, as well having too many, poses a substantial barrier to women's rights and freedoms in developing nations. Imagine if women in poor countries were actually able to exercise the same freedoms those of us who live in the developed world take for granted: the freedom to reproduce when they wish to, or not at all; the freedom to have sex without fear of contracting a deadly disease; the freedom to know that if they do bring a child into the world, that child will most likely live to become an adult. That's a wonderful thought -- one that, after nearly eight years under a poisonly anti-choice rule, is finally within our grasp.
Thanks for this great summary of the Global Gag Rule and its effects on women's health. I just wanted to note that the Senate did vote to repeal the policy, but the President has not yet vetoed the bill, so they only needed to pass the bill with a majority vote. The Foreign Aid bill your article references will now go to conference committee in which select members of Congress and the Senate will work out the differences between the bill that passed in the House of Representives and the bill that passed in the Senate. The version of the foreig aid bill the conference committee approves will then be sent back to both chambers of Congress for approval. Only after the bill has re-passed both chambers will it be sent on to the President, who has, of course, vowed to veto any bill that attempts to change U.S. anti-abortion policy. For more information on the legislative process around the Global Gag Rule please visit, www.genderhealth.org/GlobalGagRule.php