Tracing the inauspicious history of the global gag rule can
feel like watching a game of high-stakes Ping-Pong. In 1984, Republican President Reagan instates
the rule, which forbids family planning organizations who receive US
foreign aid from performing abortions, discussing safe abortion as an option
with patients, or advocating for abortion law liberalization or reform in their
own countries – even if they use other funds for those activities.
Republican President Bush the First keeps it on the books; Democratic
President Bill Clinton rescinds it on his first day in office. Republican President Bush the Second
immediately reinstates the rule; Democratic President Obama scraps it. Women’s health advocates were delighted when
Obama got rid of the global gag rule, but a nagging – and none too
insignificant – concern remained: what about four, or eight, years from now,
when Obama is no longer be in office and his successor sees fit to bring the
gag rule back?
During the Senate Appropriations Committee mark-up
yesterday, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) proposed an amendment to the foreign
aid appropriations bill that would permanently negate the global gag rule by
stipulating that foreign NGOs should not be disqualified from receiving US
family planning assistance based on their providing services that are
permissible in their own countries and legal here. The amendment passed the committee, 17 to 11,
with one member voting present. In
introducing the amendment, Sen. Lautenberg argued that the gag rule forces NGOs
abroad to "lose out on badly needed funds, or take the money and sacrifice
their responsibility to their patients."
And, he added, it "creates no choice for the women who are forced to go
without the care they need to be healthy."
"This is not something that should flip-flop depending on
who’s president," says Susan Cohen, Director of Government Affairs for the
Guttmacher Institute. "It so affects family planning that we need to provide
stability and predictability to be most efficient and effective. And since this is the policy of the President
and Congress, we should write it into law."
In debate over the amendment, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS)
predictably implied that the amendment would provide taxpayer funding for
abortion abroad, when in fact the Helms Amendment, which is unaffected by this
legislation, has long banned foreign aid funding for abortion.
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Cohen believes that the full Senate has the votes to pass
the amendment, citing the resounding defeat that greeted Sen.
Mel Martinez’s (R-FL) attempt to reinstate legislatively the global gag
rule after Obama rescinded it in late January, when 60 senators voted to keep
the gag rule off foreign aid funding.
The appropriations bill itself also allocates an increase in
family planning funding, to $628 million, of which $50 million would fund
UNFPA, the UN family planning agency.
The House allocates slightly higher levels, and the two amounts will be
reconciled in conference committee.
Speaking of conference committee – the House’s version of
the bill does not address the global gag rule.
Will that pose a problem for Lautenberg’s amendment? Advocates are hopeful that Chair of State and Foreign
Operations Subcommittee Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) will protect this amendment, and
cite Lowey’s co-sponsorship of a previous, parallel bill, the Global Democracy
Promotion Act, on which Lautenberg’s amendment was based.