Letter to Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Urging Opposition to the Addition of the Global Gag Rule to HIV/AIDS Programs

Dear Senator:

We understand that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will soon consider legislation to increase foreign assistance for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. The Center for Reproductive Rights supports the expansion of desperately needed assistance for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS around the world. We also understand that an attempt may be made to add the "global gag rule" (otherwise known as the Mexico City Policy) to U.S. foreign assistance for HIV/AIDS, which we strongly oppose. We urge you to reject the global gag rule as an amendment to this bill, which would ensure that this crucial assistance does not itself cause further harm to the very people that it is intended to help

The expansion of the global gag rule to HIV/AIDS programs would restrict overseas non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. funding for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS from using their own resources from non-U.S. government sources to provide legal abortion services, to advocate for abortion law reform, or even to provide full and accurate medical information about abortion to their patients.

The global gag rule restriction that has already been imposed on international family planning assistance is having tragic consequences for women, men and children around the world – Congress must not expand it even further. It is already forcing cuts in vital reproductive health outreach programs, including contraceptive services, provided by crucial health care organizations in developing countries. It is already leading to even more unwanted pregnancies, even more abortions, and even higher maternal mortality rates due to unsafe abortions. [See Women’s Enews: "Bush’s Anti-Choice Policies Felt Around World," January 20, 2003.]

By stifling debate and the ability of foreign NGOs to lobby their own governments, the global gag rule violates their right to exercise freedom of speech and freedom to participate in their government. The restriction erects barriers to the development of the democratic process in other countries, the promotion of civil society abroad, the enhancement of women’s participation in society, and the credibility of the United States in international settings, thus undermining bedrock U.S. foreign policy objectives. Furthermore, the restriction undermines U.S. commitments to women’s equality and reproductive rights. The global gag rule would be unconstitutional if directly applied to U.S.-based NGOs, and therefore creates a hypocritical double standard. We are appalled that anti-choice forces are now working to extend the global gag rule to international HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs.

As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently emphasized the tragic consequences of HIV/AIDS in a December 29, 2002 New York Times opinion editorial entitled, "In Africa, AIDS has a woman’s face." He noted that "AIDS has already caused immense suffering by killing almost 2.5 million Africans this year alone. It has left 11 million African children orphaned since the epidemic began." He highlighted that "HIV infection and AIDS are spreading dramatically and disproportionately among women. A United Nations report released [in 2002] shows that women now make up 50 percent of those infected with HIV worldwide – and in Africa that figure is now 58 percent." Secretary Annan explained that "as AIDS is eroding the health of Africa’s women, it is eroding the skills, experience and networks that keep their families and communities going… When [a woman dies], the household will risk collapsing completely, leaving children to fend for themselves."

In light of this tragedy, how can the U.S. government tell health care providers in Africa that they must withhold information about the option of abortion from a woman with AIDS when that information may help extend her health and her life; her ability to care for her family and community?

Although giving AIDS drugs to HIV-infected pregnant women can help prevent the spread of the virus to their babies during childbirth, studies have shown that such treatment can fail up to 50% of the time. [See Associated Press, "Treatment to Start to Prevent Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission" (January 31, 2003).] Furthermore, in most places in Africa such drugs are not even available. How can politicians sitting in Washington, D.C. tell an HIV-infected pregnant woman in Africa that they know better than she does what decisions she should make in her situation?

Many girls in Africa who are orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS are forced to form sexual relationships with much older men in order to survive. [See, e.g., BBC News, "Abuse Spreads HIV among Zambian Girls," (January 29, 2003).] These girls who are taken advantage of by older men often suffer a quadruple burden of 1) being subjected to sexual abuse, 2) becoming infected by HIV/AIDS themselves, 3) being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, and 4) becoming responsible for caring for an infant (which can force the adolescent to drop out of school, leading to reduction in future employment opportunities, and forcing her to remain dependent upon older men for support). By taking money away from organizations that try to help these girls, the U.S. government itself will become an accomplice to the multiple oppressions inflected upon these girls – which cannot be tolerated.

By contaminating international HIV/AIDS assistance with the global gag rule, the U.S. government would force HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment organizations either to deny their patients vital medical information and treatment or lose all U.S. funding. Forcing them to make that choice is immoral, cruel, and anything but compassionate.

The Center for Reproductive Rights is thrilled that Congress is finally moving forward with a much-needed increase in U.S. assistance for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in other countries, and we must ensure that this assistance is available immediately. Yet we must also take the lead to ensure the integrity of our HIV/AIDS initiatives – that they are not mired with deadly stipulations such as the global gag rule. It would be unconscionable for the U.S. government to dangle foreign assistance in front of HIV-decimated populations who so gravely need it, only to wrench the funding away because health care organizations are trying to provide their patients with full and compassionate medical care in an attempt to extend their health and lives.