US gag rule is 'risking lives'

Posted: 25 September 2003

The lives of countless thousands of the world's poorest women, men and young people are being placed at risk by draconian changes in US overseas funding policies for family planning, according to a new study.

Conducted by a coalition of reproductive health organizations, the study examined the impact of the US administration's Mexico City Policy, or 'Global Gag Rule'. This is a presidential directive which prohibits US family planning assistance for foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that use funding from any source to perform abortions, to provide counseling and referral for abortion, or to lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their own country.

"The Global Gag Rule is yet another example of how the Bush Administration is allowing political ideology to trump science," says Amy Coen, President of Population Action International (PAI), the study's lead sponsor: "The policy shows no respect for scientific evidence and proven public health practices, and no compassion for the millions of women around the world engaged in a daily struggle for existence."

Under this policy, foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are forced to choose between desperately needed family planning funds and the ability to provide medically ethical information or participate in public debates over their countries' abortion policies.

Clinics closed

The study documents the effects of the Global Gag Rule in Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, and Romania. Health services have been scaled back and closure of reproductive health clinics have left some communities with no health care provider. The study finds that the policy also impedes HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

When Dr. Steven Sinding, Director-General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, lived and worked in Kenya in the 1980s, theeight-child family was rapidly dropping toward four. "People were beginning to realise that they could make reproductive choices," said Dr.Sinding.

"Twenty years later couples still want the ability to control their own fertility but the Global Gag Rule is now preventing this desire from becoming a reality." Three clinics of the Family Planning Association of Kenya have been forced to close, one in a slum area of Nairobi with no other health services available.

The report on the study, issued in London yesterday, documents the effects of the Global Gag Rule in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia, where health services have been scaled back leaving some communities without any health care provider. Because of the Gag Rule, many family planning organizations are cut off from supplies of USAID contraceptives, including condoms.

Maternal deaths

Health experts point out that lack of ontraception leads to an increase in unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion, which will in turn inevitably lead to more maternal deaths.

"At a time when more than 500,000 women die worldwide from pregnancy-related causes each year and over a million women die from AIDS, the Global Gag Rule is only making matters worse," says Elizabeth Maguire, President of the International Pregnancy Advisory Service (Ipas). "The fact is family planning and reproductive choices are vital to saving lives and improving the health of women and communities."

Others say that President George Bush has further compounded the problem with his recent announcement extending the Global Gag Rule to include State Department family planning funds, a move that will affect vulnerable groups previously exempt from the policy.

The administration also officially withdrew funding from the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium, which provides care for some of the most needy women in the world. According to a report in the New York Times, this action was taken beause of the involvement of Marie Stopes Interational, a UK reproductive health provider which also provides abortion services. In fact, Marie Stopes was funded to provide HIV prevention servies for refugee women in Angola.

Senate vote

The Senate Appropriations Committee later voted to block the expansion of the gag rule to State Department programmes. It hAs also adopted a Global Democracy Promition Act which, if passed, would would repeal the gag rule.

"This invidious series of attacks on reproductive rights and services, which has become a signature of the Bush administration, is thoroughly destructive of the wellbeing and lives of women and their families in the developing world," said Patricia Hindmarsh, Marie Stopes International's Director of External Relations.

"The latest targets of this callous and politically self-serving ideology are refugees, possibly the most marginalized, neglected and vulnerable communities on the planet."

Access Denied: US Restrictions on International Family Planning is published by PAI and is available in full, with a video, at Gag RuleRelated links:US abortion ruling 'holds thousands of lives to ransom' Free Choice Saves - new IPPF/WHR campaign