Every Woman’s Choice: Defending Global Reproductive Rights

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President Trump used his first full day in office to reinstate and expand the Mexico City policy – referred to by abortion rights groups as the Global Gag Rule – which denies funding to any U.S. global health organization that offers information, referrals, or services relating to abortion. Since 1973, U.S. foreign aid dollars have been forbidden from covering abortion services as a means of family planning through a policy called the Helms amendment. These policies, and others enacted by American men, have negatively impacted women and communities across the world and impeded the internationally recognized human right to make decisions about when and if to bear children. Meanwhile, civil unrest and forced displacement have thrown millions of women worldwide into a reproductive crisis.

In the wake of the historic Roe v. Wade decision, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina proposed an amendment to the foreign aid appropriations bill that states, "no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions."

Despite repeated attempts by the global reproductive rights community to overturn it, the Helms amendment has remained intact since its original passing. However, much of the argument around that policy has revolved around its interpretation by the USAID, which is tasked with administering development programs, including family planning and reproductive health. Even during the liberal Obama administration, USAID has implemented a blanket ban on all abortions paid for by U.S. tax dollars, including in the cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. These extraneous cases, reproductive justice experts argue, do not count as “a method of family planning” and should not fall under the jurisdiction of the Helms amendment.

The Mexico City policy is named after the venue where it was announced by President Ronald Reagan at the 1984 United Nations International Conference on Population. It blocks U.S. federal funding for foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide abortion counseling or referrals or advocate to decriminalize abortion or expand abortion services. Many global reproductive rights groups refer to it as the global gag rule because they claim it effectively “gags” healthcare providers in international settings from educating clients and communities about abortion services even when using non-U.S. dollars.

The rule has been rescinded and reinstated through executive orders depending on the party that occupies the Oval Office. The original policy under President Reagan extended only to family planning organizations; however, President Trump’s reinstated version of the policy expanded conditional aid to all global health assistance, including HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child health programming.

Family planning NGOs are particularly concerned about the expanded policy because of past studies of the impact of strings-attached foreign aid. For example, a 2003 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights studied four countries reliant on U.S. foreign aid for family planning and maternal health services and identified ways in which the Global Gag Rule impedes efforts to slow “spiraling rates of unsafe abortion” in those nations. Another study, published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization in 2011 by several medical professors at Stanford, suggested that unintended pregnancies and abortions in sub-Saharan African countries rose significantly - even doubling in some cases - while the Global Gag Rule was in effect.

In January 2017, in anticipation of yet another reinstatement by a Republican president, 138 local, national, and global organizations signed onto a coalition statement opposing the global gag rule. This time around, other Western nations have taken a stand against the policy as well. Soon after the new executive order was signed, the Netherlands launched a pledging conference to raise money from European national development agencies and private donors to attempt to fill the gap in funding for NGOs who seek to maintain funding flows without complying with the Mexico City contingencies. Canada has also followed suit with a pledge of $20 million dollars, however, as the U.S. is by far the largest provider of international development funding, the hundreds of millions of dollars raised still falls flat of the need.

American voters seeking to take up arms against the global gag rule have several tools in their arsenal. The U.S. Congress has the power to undo the President’s executive order through legislation. Women in the Senate have gotten close before. In September 2007, amid President George W. Bush’s second term, California Senator Barbara Boxer created an amendment designed to lift the funding conditions put in place by the Mexico City policy. It passed by a vote of 53–41. President Bush promised to veto any legislation that would eliminate the Mexico City policy.

Ten years later, in the wake of President Trump’s expansion of the global gag rule, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (Global HER) Act, which would legislate the end of the policy and remove the contingency on foreign NGOs. The bill currently has 46 cosponsors, including Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Rep. Nita Lowey of New York introduced the House version of the bill, which currently has 140 cosponsors, all Democrats. In today’s newfound rise in grassroots advocacy, constituents seeking to effect any type of policy change - but particularly one opposed by the executive branch and the party in power - will need to be persistent in their efforts and mobilize sizable numbers to speak up above the political noise.

In the long term, advocates of global reproductive rights should look ahead to the next election cycle, as we will need to elect pro-choice champions to shift the balance of power and popular thought within the federal government. The lives of women around the world depend on it.


Morgan Moran is a professional advocate against issues of global poverty and gender inequality and is based in Washington, D.C.  Follow her on Twitter here.