Obama ends Gag Rule and pledges UNFPA funding

Posted: 24 January 2009

President Barack Obama has acted fast to abolish the Global Gag Rule, which has restricted US funding for family planning and reproductive health, and pledged to work to restore a partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reversing a Bush administration policy which cut off funding.

The President's announcement that he has rescinded the global gag rule came yesterday, paving the way for restored US funding for international non-governmental organizations that provide life-saving family planning services.

"I look forward to working with Congress to restore US financial support for the UN Population Fund. By resuming funding to UNFPA, the US will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries," said President Obama.

The global gag rule, or the "Mexico City policy," is a US policy that requires foreign non-governmental organizations to agree they will not "perform or promote abortion" in exchange for family planning assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Specifically, they may not use their own non-US funds to provide information on request to pregnant women about the option of legal abortion, provide legal abortion services or engage in any abortion-related public policy debates.

Safe motherhood

The President said, "I have directed my staff to reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies. They will also work to promote safe motherhood, reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and increase educational and economic opportunities for women and girls."

Organizations working in the field of reproductive health have campaigned for the removal of the Gag Rule on the grounds that it harms women by preventing health clinics from providing them life-saving information on all available options and has forced some service providers in underserved areas to close.

Speaking yesterday the President said: "In the coming weeks, my Administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world."

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid welcomed President Obama's decision to restore funding to UNFPA and noted, "how quickly he has addressed this issue. His actions send a strong message about his leadership and his desire to support causes that will promote peace and dignity, equality for women and girls, and economic development in the poorest regions of the world. And, access to reproductive health is at the core of all of these issues," she said.

More abortions

Health experts, such as Dr John Guillebaud, Emeritus Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at University College London, also point out that the Gag Rule has severely inhibited the provision of family planning sevices, resulting in more (often illegal and dangerous) abortions, not fewer. Dr Gill Greer, Director General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation which has been severely affected by the Rule, said: "For eight long years the Global Gag Rule has been used by the Bush administration to play politics with the lives of poor women across the world.

"In rescinding this disastrous and unjust policy, President Obama has returned the United States to the international consensus on women's health and begun the process of repairing the damage of the last eight years.

"IPPF estimates that during the Bush administration it lost at least US$100 million for the life-saving family planning and sexual and reproductive health services that our grassroots national affiliates in over 100 developing countries deliver to their communities.

"Based on internationally recognized estimates, this funding would have prevented 36 million unintended pregnancies and 15 million induced abortions.

"More tragically 80,000 women's and 2.5 million infant and children's lives would have been saved. This is the true legacy of the Global Gag Rule."

Catholic reaction

Reaction from the Vatican was predictably less favourable. Papal spokesman Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that Obama's act was: "the arrogance of someone who believes they are right, in signing a decree which will open the door to abortion and thus to the destruction of human life...What is important is to know how to listen to all the requests of the country without locking oneself into ideological visions with the arrogance of a person who, having the power, thinks they can decide on life and death."

However, not all Catholic reaction was negative. Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said: "Today's executive order overturning the Mexico City Policy, or Global Gag Rule as it is more commonly known, is tremendously encouraging. It marks the first step on President Obama's journey towards restoring confidence in America and America's foreign policy.

"For the past eight years the gag rule has represented an unconscionable attack on free speech and the rights of women to have access to information about abortion services. It could never have been imposed in the United States, where citizens enjoy the right to free speech. The gag rule has had a severe impact in the global South by gutting practical, life-saving programmes and curtailing the effectiveness of many national and international family planning policies and organizations. The policy did nothing to reduce the need for abortion - it simply brought American development aid into disrepute.

"Catholics in the United States and elsewhere support aid for international family planning programs and reject abstinence-only education. Catholics support access to safe and legal abortion services and back family planning and condom use to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.

"President Obama has started to make good on his promise to renew the United States' global leadership on sound, scientifically accurate health policies. There is much still to be done, notably on reforming existing policies on embryonic stem-cell research and abstinence-only sex education programmes. The American public, including American Catholics, support reforms in these areas and we look forward to constructive discussions about what can be achieved in the coming period."

Related links:

Time to abolish Gag Rule says population agency

Five former USAID officials ask Obama for leadership on family planning