'Global Gag Rule' to have devastating impact on women

By Sarah Bannerman

International Women's Initiative News Writer

On 23 January 2017 President Donald Trump signed a memorandum reinstating the Mexico City Policy, more commonly known as the 'Global Gag Rule' [1]. This policy prohibits international NGOs that are in receipt of US government funding from offering abortion services, or from actively promoting abortion. The policy was first introduced over 30 years ago, and has been rescinded and reinstated by subsequent administrations ever since. Trump’s memorandum, however, has radically expanded upon the original policy, which could result in a catastrophic impact on the rights of women and girls in low-income countries.

The Global Gag Rule was first introduced in 1984 by the Reagan administration, and built upon the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prevents the US government from providing funds for abortion services as a method of family planning. The policy is caught up in domestic US politics surrounding abortion, and so it was no surprise that Trump followed in the footsteps of former Republican administrations, and reinstated the policy.

In practice, the Global Gag Rule prevents foreign NGOs from receiving any US funding for family planning if they use non-US funds to provide abortion services. This includes providing advice about abortion, making abortion referrals, or even providing something as simple as a pamphlet outlining the option of abortion [2]. The rule also disqualifies foreign NGOs from receiving US funding if they advocate abortion rights [3]

The policy has failed to achieve its purpose when implemented under previous administrations. For example, during the eight years that President Bush was in power, countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East saw an increase in unwanted pregnancies, rather than a reduction in abortions [4]. The policy resulted in the closure of many NGOs and health clinics across more than 20 developing countries, which in turn led to many losing access to contraception, family planning services and other maternal and children’s health services [5].

Despite this, Trump has taken a huge step further than his Republic predecessors, and has expanded the application of the Global Gag Rule to all US government funding for global health assistance [6].  This could result in a cut of up to $9.5 billion in US foreign aid, which is 16 times the amount of US aid provided to family planning [7].

Foreign NGOs have become increasingly integrated over recent years with the aim of providing comprehensive health care, and to allow people in the poorest regions of the world to have access to a wide range of basic health services. To this end, many large NGO’s have partnered with local organisations at a city and village level. As abortion is legal in most countries, many of these local organisations provide some form of abortion related service. The practical effect of Trump’s expanded version of the Global Gag Rule is that large NGOs that do not do any abortion related work, could lose their funding simply because they have ties to a local organisation that provides services, referrals, or advice related to abortion.

Therefore, Trump’s version of the policy endangers a wider range of health services than the original policy, including: family planning, maternal and child health, HIV/AIDs testing and treatment, nutrition, malaria, infectious diseases, and tuberculosis [8]. This could result in millions of women and their families in low-income countries losing access to basic health care. Women and girls are at risk of losing control over their reproductive health and will have less access to contraception. This in turn will lead to a rise in unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and maternal deaths [9]. It is indisputable that this new policy will serve to undermine the vast progress that has been made over recent decades to improve women’s health and achieve gender equality. As stated by Human Rights Watch, the Global Gag Rule “is a profound setback to hard-fought gains for women and girls’ health in countries around the world” [10].

The first tangible step taken by the US under the reinstated policy, came in April this year, when the state department announced that it would no longer fund the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) [11]. The UNFPA, the world’s largest provider of contraceptives and the leading UN agency working to support maternal and reproductive health [12], received $69 million in funding from the US in 2016 [13]. The decision to withdraw this funding has provoked outrage amongst the global health community, with the International Women’s Health Coalition describing it as “a major blow to global women’s health” [14].

Steps have already been taken by various countries to bridge the anticipated funding gap left as a result of the reinstated Global Gag Rule. At the ‘She Decides’ conference held in Brussels in March, pledges of £155 million were made to fund family planning and reproductive health services [15]. Furthermore, Canada has recently announced that it will spend $650 million over three years in funding sexual and reproductive health programmes both locally and internationally [16].

Trump’s reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule has ignored the disastrous impacts of its implementation in the past. This policy has never achieved its intended purpose of reducing abortion rates, but rather puts the health and lives of women and children at grave risk. There remains a lack of clarity as to true extent of Trump’s expanded version of the Rule. However, the recent cut in funding to the UNFPA is the first concrete indication of the profoundly damaging impact that it could have on millions of women and girls in low-income countries. The global health community need to continue to strengthen their efforts to narrow the inevitable gaps in funding to ensure continuity of care for women and girls in low-income countries.

References:

  • [1] The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Presidential Memorandum Regarding the Mexico City Policy’ dated 23 January 2017, available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/23/presidential-memorandum-regarding-mexico-city-policy
  • [2] KFF, “The Mexico City Policy: An Explainer”, dated 6 March 2017, available at: http://kff.org/global-health-policy/fact-sheet/mexico-city-policy-explainer/
  • [3] Human Rights Watch, “Trump’s ‘Mexico City Policy’ or ‘Global Gag Rule’: Questions and Answers”, dated 7 March 2017, available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/07/trumps-mexico-city-policy-or-global-gag-rule
  • [4] Engender Health, “The Global Gag Rule: Also known as the Mexico City Policy”, available at: https://www.engenderhealth.org/media/info/definition-global-gag-rule.php
  • [5] ibid
  • [6] E Weingarten, “The Connection Between the Global Gag Rule and Extremism”, TIME, dated 31 March 2017, available at: http://time.com/4706710/global-gag-rule-extremism-terrorism-security/
  • [7] PAI, “With a Stroke of the Pen – Trump’s Global Gag Rule Dramatically Expands Harmful Health Impacts”, dated 25 January 2017, available at: https://pai.org/newsletters/stroke-pen-trumps-global-gag-rule-dramatically-expands-harmful-health-impacts/
  • [8] Human Rights Watch, “Trump’s ‘Mexico City Policy’ or ‘Global Gag Rule’: Questions and Answers”, dated 7 March 2017, available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/07/trumps-mexico-city-policy-or-global-gag-rule
  • [9] ibid
  • [10] Human Rights Watch, ‘Women’s Day: ‘Gag Rule’ Huge Setback for Women’ dated 8 March 2017, available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/08/womens-day-gag-rule-huge-setback-women
  • [11] L Ford and N Khomami, “Trump administration halts money to UN population fund over abortion rules”, The Guardian, 4 April 2017, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/apr/04/trump-administration-un-population-fund-abortion
  • [12] UNFPA website, “About us”, available at: http://www.unfpa.org/about-us
  • [13] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/apr/04/trump-administration-un-population-fund-abortion
  • [14] International Women’s Health Coalition, ‘When Ideology Drives US Funding, Women Stand to Lose’, dated 4 April 2017, available at: https://iwhc.org/2017/04/ideology-drives-us-funding-women-stand-lose/ 
  • [15] J Rankin and J Elgot, ‘UK fails to contribute as donors unite to bridge US ‘global gag’ funding shortfall’, The Guardian, dated 2 March 2017, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/mar/02/uk-donors-unite-us-global-gag-rule-shortfall-trump-she-decides-conference-brussels 
  • [16] L Desjardins, ‘Canada pledges $650M for sexual, reproductive health’, Radio Canada International, dated 8 March 2017, available at: http://www.rcinet.ca/en/2017/03/08/canada-pledges-650m-for-sexual-reproductive-health/