Obama Repeals Global Gag Rule

Daniel Pellegrom

The global gag rule has never reduced abortion -- rather, it resulted in an attack on the delivery of family planning services that could help reduce abortion. And now President Obama has repealed it.

President Obama signed an executive order late Friday afternoon ending the Global Gag Rule.

President Obama’s decision
to lift the Global Gag Rule gives me extraordinary reason to rejoice.
I became Pathfinder International’s president in 1985, shortly after
President Reagan imposed the original version of the Global Gag Rule
(also known as the Mexico City Policy). I have openly opposed the gag
rule, working for its repeal ever since.

At Pathfinder, we challenged this harmful policy
in federal court in the late 1980s. Although we did not obtain an outright
victory in the courts, the lawsuit forced the U.S. government to clarify
what activities were legally permissible under the rule, paving the
way for resumption of life-saving post-abortion medical services. Indeed,
that legal challenge revealed to the court that among the repercussions
of the U.S. gag rule were the preventable deaths of women in the globe’s
poorest countries.

Pathfinder was the first organization to negotiate
a cooperative agreement with USAID after the implementation of the Mexico
City Policy. And I can tell you from personal observation that the gag
rule was ineffective in doing what its proponents sought or claimed
to seek. It did not reduce abortion. Rather, it resulted in an attack
on the delivery of family planning services–services that by definition
help to reduce the need for abortions. Outstanding providers
of reproductive health services lost critical funding, resulting in
shortfalls of contraceptive supplies and increases in unintended pregnancies.
Dangerous abortions multiplied as responsible service providers stopped
offering safe abortion services for fear of American scrutiny.

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Furthermore, the policy undermined
America’s credibility in promoting democracy and free speech abroad.
Free expression–free speech–is a requirement of a democratic society.
How can we–indeed, how dare we–spend foreign assistance teaching
democratic aspirations on the one hand, and then deny free speech on
the other, when the subject happens to displease us?

In the countries where Pathfinder works, foreign NGOs that rely on American
foreign assistance have been trapped between obeying their nation’s
laws and American policies. The American government’s disregard for
the sovereignty of others and the hypocrisy of American actions, have
not been lost on other countries. Women have been refused services,
or even referral to services without regard to the laws of their land.
NGOs have been denied U.S. funding without consideration for the quality
of care they provided.

Some organizations in less
developed countries chose to resist the gag rule–organizations like
the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia (FGAE), which Pathfinder
helped establish in the 1960s. FGAE was the very first, and continually
one of the most effective, family planning organizations in the country,
relying heavily on U.S. funding. Their networks extended into the most
rural and impoverished areas, reaching the most vulnerable women. When
President Bush reinstated the gag rule in 2001, they were determined
to continue participating in Ethiopia’s on-going national debate around
unsafe abortion. By them choosing to simply discuss abortion, not only
was Pathfinder forced to sever our relationship with them, they lost
35 percent of their financial resources, donated contraceptives, critical
technical support, and training programs.

Prior to the reinstatement of the
gag rule, Pathfinder‘s criteria for selecting in-country
partners read like a guide on a good management. Our checklist was something like the following:

  • Which
    organization provides the highest quality of care?
  • What
    is the most cost-effective organization?
  • Which
    organization is managed well?
  • Which organization has
    the best capacity to expand in order to reach the poorest of the poor?
  • Which organization is the
    most sincerely committed to improving the conditions of its people?


However, during the years that
the gag rule was imposed, the overriding criteria that the U.S. government
wished to enforce was whether an organization was sufficiently anti-abortion,
with no regard to anything else.

Today’s repeal of the
Global Gag Rule by President Obama will enable Pathfinder, and a variety of other outstanding
organizations, to once again work with the most effective partners,
bringing family planning services to the women most in need. I applaud
the president for taking bold and immediate action to improve the lives
of women and their families, especially in the world’s most impoverished

However, even as I applaud
and celebrate this decision by America’s new president, I am reminded
of the previous administration’s imposition of the Anti-prostitution
Loyalty Oath, which is still being enforced. The Anti-prostitution Loyalty
Oath requires that any American or foreign organization that receives
U.S. global HIV/AIDS funds must formally pledge their opposition to
prostitution in order to remain eligible for funding. Under this pledge
requirement, recipients are forced to censor even their privately-funded
speech and activities regarding the most effective ways to engage high-risk
groups in HIV prevention. In other words, the United States government
has told private organizations, not just what they must do with U.S.
government funds, but what they must think and believe.

Any organization that works
to address the tragedy of HIV/AIDS in less developed countries must
confront head-on the need to serve sex workers. If there is a single
class of citizens on this planet who are more powerless and desperate,
I wouldn’t know where to find them.

Pathfinder does not believe that it is sound
policy to judge or condemn the very people we endeavor to serve. Furthermore,
we believe that private organizations must insist upon free speech.
Our government also has an obligation to uphold, not infringe upon,
that right. That’s why, several years ago, Pathfinder joined Alliance for Open Society International
in challenging this infringement in federal court. In May 2006, the
court ruled in our favor, agreeing that the anti-prostitution loyalty
oath violates the First Amendment by restricting privately-funded free
speech and forcing organizations to adopt the government’s view point.
Last fall, the court reaffirmed this decision, expanding the case to
include two preeminent public health and humanitarian membership organizations, Global Health Council and

Astonishingly, the U.S. government
is presently appealing this decision. Gag rules and loyalty oaths should
be rejected as politics of the past. While I commend today’s decision,
I appeal to President Obama and his administration to continue fulfilling
his promise to promote science over ideology, to uphold the Constitution,
and affirm that democracy, not dogma, be the hallmarks of the new American
foreign policy.

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