Care2: Congress' War on Women, the Global Edition

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By Aram Schvey, counsel for foreign policy and human rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights
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When Congress turns this week to another round of negotiations over spending for 2011, much of the country will be focused on the sure-to-be contentious debate over the House proposal to strip federal funding from family planning services, including from Planned Parenthood clinics. But there's another anti-woman proposal buried deep in the House's proposed spending bill that has gone virtually unnoticed, even though it also promises to endanger the health and lives of women, and on a significantly larger scale. Anti-choice lawmakers--apparently not content with only targeting basic medical services for millions of American families--are also taking aim at women in countries around the world.

They have proposed a measure that would prohibit U.S.-funded family planning groups based overseas from using their own money to provide safe, legal abortion, counsel or refer for abortion, or even lobby their own governments for the legalization of abortion. This policy has nothing to do with the federal debt, but it would severely reduce the availability of reproductive health services, including abortion and contraception, muzzle advocacy efforts to change abortion laws in other countries, and likely condemn countless women to unsafe abortion.

The "Global Gag Rule," as this policy is commonly known, is a perennial fixation of anti-choice groups and administrations. It was the brainchild of President Reagan, and then implemented by subsequent Republican administrations. Because USAID is the leading global funder of family planning, when the gag rule was in effect during the Reagan and Bush administrations, it hit hard. Organizations that opted to forego U.S. funding were forced to scale back their services and others closed down. Groups that continued to receive funding saw their free speech rights violated, and their advocacy efforts to liberalize abortion laws stifled. In countries where abortion is legal, medical providers had to choose between meeting their ethical obligations--discussing all reproductive health options with their patients--and continuing to receive essential funding.

The Global Gag Rule's clear intent is to prevent women around the world from accessing safe, legal abortions. But we know from past experience that the policy won't reduce the number of abortions at all – instead, it will likely lead to more women being forced to rely on unsafe abortions. Already, there are a staggering 20,000,000 unsafe abortions that kill more than 45,000 women each year and inflict injuries, disabilities, and infertility on millions more.

Depriving women of information about legal and safe abortion doesn’t lead to a reduction in abortion, but leads to women resorting to crude and unsafe methods. In Kenya, for example, where until recently, the abortion law was extremely restrictive and abortion services essentially unavailable, common methods of abortion are ingesting bleach, inserting sharp objects or resorting to back-alley abortions. Currently, thirty to forty-percent of maternal deaths in Kenya are attributable to unsafe abortion. Forcing family planning organizations that provide contraceptive services to shut down or cut services is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

The Global Gag Rule is also un-democratic and un-American. Our foreign policy should promote free speech and democratic change around the world – not silence groups that are doing nothing more than informing women about their legal reproductive options or peacefully petitioning their governments to ease abortion restrictions.

The Global Gag Rule would be unconstitutional if applied to U.S. citizens. It is both unfair and unwise to limit the ability of foreign groups to inform women about all of their reproductive options – particularly when many abroad are looking to the United States as a beacon of liberty and free speech. The Global Gag Rule has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility – it won't have any effect on the deficit – but it will exact a cost in lost lives and shattered health.

For more information, read our report, Breaking the Silence: The Global Gag Rule's Impact on Unsafe Abortion. The report was issued at the time President George W. Bush implemented a version of the Global Gag Rule, but its findings are as true today as they were then. And add your voice to those protesting the harmful, anti-woman measures in the House-enacted budget bill.

Don't let Congress take a huge step backwards on women's health here and around the world.

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