Gag Me: From Texas to Tanzania, U.S. Politicians Are Meddling in Women’s Health

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Commentary Abortion

Gag Me: From Texas to Tanzania, U.S. Politicians Are Meddling in Women’s Health

Wendy Turnbull

The anti-choice maneuvers we've seen in Texas and elsewhere recently are the progeny of the Global Gag Rule, which has resulted in major losses of critical reproductive health services around the world. An act introduced in the House Thursday would permanently repeal the Gag Rule.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a sweeping anti-choice bill Thursday that threatens to shutter 90 percent of abortion clinics in the state.

The bill, in addition to banning abortion after 20 weeks, includes new regulations that will require clinics that offer abortions to adhere to the same standards as surgical centers, even though major medical groups say the measures are unnecessary and won’t actually make abortion safer. The new regulations force these clinics to make expensive updates to their facilities—updates that most can’t afford and will cause them to close their doors. The result is that women in many parts of the state will not only lose access to abortion, but to family planning and other basic reproductive health-care services that these clinics offered. It’s not an unintended consequence. Quite the opposite: It’s part of the anti-choice movement’s strategy.

Over the last three years, more than a dozen states have prohibited and restricted family planning funding to reproductive health centers that provide abortion services with separate, private funding. And a handful of states have even managed to block the flow of federal funds to reproductive health providers.

These anti-choice maneuvers are the progeny of the Global Gag Rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy. The Gag Rule denies foreign organizations receiving U.S. family planning assistance the right to use their own non-U.S. funds to provide information, referrals, or services for legal abortion or advocate for the legalization of abortion in their country. In other words, if you want U.S. family planning funding, you better keep your lips sealed about abortion.

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The Gag Rule was first imposed by the Reagan administration in 1984. It was rescinded in 1993 by President Clinton, reinstated in 2001 by President Bush, and rescinded by President Obama in 2009. During the most recent eight years the Gag Rule was in effect, 2001 to 2008, it crippled family planning organizations and severely impeded women’s access to contraception and reproductive health services. In the name of ensuring that no U.S. dollars even indirectly subsidized abortion, family planning services and supplies took the hit. And where organizations refused to be silenced, the consequences were dire for women:

  • In Ghana, the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana (PPAG), lost $2 million in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding. PPAG experienced a 50 percent increase in demand for post-abortion care, was forced to reduce nursing staff by 44 percent, and more than 1,327 communities in Ghana were affected by the cuts.

  • In Tanzania, the country’s leading reproductive health service providers—UMATI and Marie Stopes International (MSI) Tanzania—both lost significant USAID funding. MSI Tanzania lost nearly 65 percent of its annual budget. The loss of USAID support forced UMATI to lay off key staff, leaving many government health facilities that were dependent upon UMATI training unequipped to offer family planning services.

  • In Kenya, MSI Kenya and the Family Planning Association of Kenya (FPAK), as it was then called, lost all U.S. funding. MSI Kenya was forced to close two clinics in 2002, and only kept further clinics from closing by laying off staff. Unable to raise enough funds to replace the USAID money lost, FPAK was forced to close 15 clinics between 2001 and 2005.

  • In Nepal, the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN) lost USAID support for three clinics providing reproductive health services to more than 20,000 clients. FPAN was forced to lay off staff, leaving most clinics without a full-time doctor. FPAN also lost $400,000 in USAID-funded contraceptives, two-thirds of its total stock, thus reducing the number of women it was able to serve.

The regulations and tactics may be different, but the story is the same: Anti-choice efforts don’t just restrict abortion access, but deliberately undercut access to family planning. They result in major losses of critical reproductive health services. Clinics close. Choices disappear. Women’s lives get harder.

President Obama repealed the Gag Rule shortly after taking office in 2009, but the risk remains every time there is an anti-choice president that the rule can—and will—be reinstated. Friday, a House subcommittee will consider a draft appropriations bill that would reinstate the Gag Rule legislatively. The Global Democracy Promotion Act, introduced in the House of Representatives Thursday by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and 114 co-sponsors, would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule and prevent this from happening again.

Last week, women in Texas and people all over the country stood up, raised their voices, and caused a major uproar over a bad policy that will hurt women in one state. It’s time to do the same for women and girls in developing countries.

So stand with Texas women. And Kenyan women. And Nepali women. And Ghanaian women. Let’s stand with all women, and let’s make sure our lawmakers hear us.