The Global Gag Rule Still Matters

From the Women’s March in January to the burgeoning #MeToo movement, 2017 was a banner year for women—and yet, it was also a year defined by the use of ideology, not evidence, to restrict women’s reproductive health around the world.

One year ago today, the Trump administration reinstated and dramatically expanded the Mexico City Policy, widely known as the Global Gag Rule, which denies foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. government global health assistance the right to use their own, non-U.S. funds to provide information, referrals or services for safe, legal abortion or to advocate for the legalization of abortion. (This, despite the fact that the Helms Amendment has barred the U.S. government from federal funding for abortion globally since 1973. This, despite the fact that the Hyde Amendment bars the U.S. government from federal funding for abortion domestically.)

All told, the administration massively expanded the Global Gag Rule as it had existed under former Republican administrations. The latest version went from affecting $575 million in programs to nearly $9 billion—putting thousands more women and girls at risk of losing healthcare globally.

Of course, that was only the beginning. Next, Congress gutted Title X and tried to defund Planned Parenthood, further threatening access to critical women’s health services here in the U.S. The Trump administration eliminated U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s leading provider of family planning services to women in at least 155 countries. As of October 2017, more than 400 abortion restrictions had been proposed in state legislatures.

In light of a hostile U.S. environment, threats against the health and rights of women and girls on the other side of the world can seem less immediate and urgent. But fighting the Global Gag Rule still matters.

For women and girls who often lack access to birth control and have little autonomy over whether and when they have sex, the Global Gag Rule is yet another devastating way of preventing women and girls from determining their own futures.

When the policy was last enacted at a smaller scale under previous Republican administrations, health clinics in many countries were forced to close—and many of the world’s poorest people were left without access to maternal and child health care, HIV testing and counseling and contraceptives, including condoms. This expanded policy now affects 15 times more funding than ever before, putting millions of lives at risk and undermining reproductive healthcare in developing countries. The policy would be unconstitutional if applied to U.S.-registered organizations, but that has not stopped the Trump administration from paternalistically dictating how local non-profits serving vulnerable populations use their own dollars to best serve their patients’ needs. (In fact, the policy has also been proven to increase unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions.)

Today, 214 million women and girls in developing countries who do not want to get pregnant have an unmet need for contraceptives and family planning services. Because of the Global Gag Rule, 214 million women and girls lack the ability to determine their own futures. For the same reasons we must fight for the rights of young women in Kentucky and Mississippi to make their own reproductive choices, we must also help protect the rights of young women in Kenya and Malawi. The right to access reproductive health services should not be determined by one’s geography or income, yet the Global Gag Rule denies access to care for an ever-growing number of women and girls every day.

Now is the time to advance, not retreat, our support for reproductive rights globally. Foreign aid to empower women and girls is not about charity, but about equality and justice. Worldwide, women and girls are depending on the United States—the world’s leading global health donor—to continue the leadership we’ve shown for decades.

The Global Gag Rule is a blight on this country that hinders progress for women and girls worldwide. We cannot continue to base family planning policy on ideological whims instead of proven evidence. Whether in our own backyard or beyond our borders, we cannot allow bad policy and funding cuts to cost women and girls their lives.


Elspeth Williams is the Associate Director of Policy and Government Relations at Population Council.