Women Want the Global Gag Rule Gone for Good

Thirty years ago this week, the Ronald Reagan Administration announced at an international conference in Mexico City a harsh new policy that set the U.S. on a course of playing partisan politics with the lives and welfare of women around the world.

The “Mexico City Policy,” also known as the Global Gag Rule, denied U.S. family planning funds to any foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides, lobbies for or counsels on abortion, even when using its own resources. It has not remained in effect for those 30 years, though: It was rescinded by Bill Clinton in 1993, reinstated by George W. Bush in 2001 and rescinded by Barack Obama in 2009.

Evidence demonstrates that when implemented, the policy has not only limited women’s access to abortion information and services, but also disrupted basic family planning services, such as the provision of contraception by NGOs that became ineligible as a result of it.  More recent evidence demonstrates that the policy has led to decreases in overall funding for family planning assistance, which puts women’s health in jeopardy.

In between this ping pong of presidential executive orders, Congress has attempted many times to legislate the Mexico City Policy into or out of existence. The introduction during the current Congress of the Global Democracy Promotion Act, which would prohibit the U.S. from imposing restrictions on foreign organizations that would be unconstitutional if applied to organizations in our own country, is the latest such attempt. And the fact that it was introduced by two female members of congress, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is telling. My research has shown that, over the years, a far higher percentage of Republicans have voted to make the Mexico City Policy permanent than have Democrats, and this partisan divide has increased steadily over time.

I’ve also found that female members of Congress are not only more likely to vote in support of international reproductive health and rights (and against the Mexico City Policy) than their male counterparts, but they also cosponsor legislation and come to the House floor to debate these issues in greater proportions as well. From 1995 to 2007, for example, women represented between seven and 17 percent of the House of Representatives, but female members represented 35 to 65 percent of those speaking in opposition to the Mexico City Policy, a rate three to six times their representation in Congress.

The passion that female members have on these issues carries over to the language and tone that they use in these debates. Female members of Congress, much more than male members, have spoken frequently and powerfully about the negative impacts of the policy on women in the developing world. As Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) remarked in a 1997 debate, “Somebody has to speak for the millions of women around this world.”

Having women in Congress makes a difference to women—and to their reproductive rights—around the world.

Finally, my research demonstrates that abortion and family planning are often confused or conflated in debates around the Mexico City Policy. Supporters of the policy often equate family planning with abortion in these debates, while opponents argue that restrictions on family planning programs lead to more unsafe abortions.

This is far from the only restriction on U.S. international reproductive health assistance. A decade before the Mexico City Policy was first instituted, the Helms Amendment went into place, prohibiting the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for “abortion as a method of family planning.” But ever since it was first introduced, the amendment has been implemented by Republican and Democratic administrations alike as a total ban on abortion funding through our foreign aid. This incorrect implementation means that the U.S. cannot help women and girls—even those facing pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, even when their life is endangered and even in countries where abortion is legally permitted—to access safe abortion services.

The Helms Amendment itself violates the human rights of women to safe and legal abortions and contributes to preventable deaths and injuries among millions of poor women worldwide. But going beyond the constraints of the law to restrict the U.S. from helping some of the world’s most vulnerable women to access safe abortion services, as is currently happening, is unnecessary and harmful. And it is something that can change immediately.

Even as we work toward having more women in Congress who can drive an agenda friendlier to women’s reproductive health and rights, including one that would legislate both the Mexico City Policy and Helms Amendment out of existence, President Obama can act now. The President should issue guidance that clarifies that the Helms Amendment does not prohibit U.S. foreign assistance from funding abortions, at a minimum, in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.

This simple move can mean life or death to millions of women around the world. And if Obama let Congress know he also wants to see the Mexico City Policy forever gone, that wouldn’t hurt either.

For more information on the Mexico City Policy, see ICRW’s recent policy brief on the topic.

See the next issue of Ms. for more on how misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment is victimizing women and girls raped in war zones worldwide.

Photo of Sen. Barbara Boxer from Flickr user Senate Democrats under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Dr. Suzanne Petroni is an expert in global health, youth development and public policy, with a 25-year career that has spanned the U.S. government, philanthropy and NGO sectors. She is the senior director, Global Health, Youth and Development at ICRW.