The Latest Government Report on the Global Gag Rule Confirms What We Already Know

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—a “watchdog” agency in charge of sharing unbiased, objective information with Congress—issued a new report on the consequences of the global gag rule. (via Center for Health and Gender Equity / Facebook)

This is uncharted territory.

As I write this, we’re experiencing a global health pandemic of unprecedented scale. COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of our global health systems and the vital role that health care workers and advocates play in fighting for access to high-quality care.

This pandemic represents a pivotal moment in human history, and the health and welfare of millions of women and youth are at stake.

Even as the world battles COVID-19, details emerged last week about the global gag rule, a Trump-Pence administration policy that’s cut health access for people around the world, especially women and young people.

The global gag rule forces health care providers to choose between U.S. global health assistance and the ability to counsel and provide clients with an accurate and full range of safe and legal reproductive health options. (Planned Parenthood)

A new government report reveals the dramatic reach of the policy.

During these uncertain times, we should bolster global programs that provide health services and information—not diminish them.

That’s the quick version.

Here’s what else you need to know:

What is the Global Gag Rule?

Put simply: the global gag rule is an attack on the health and human rights of people worldwide, especially women, young people and others who already face systemic barriers to care.

It’s blocked millions of people from accessing a wide range of health services that could save and transform their lives.

Since 2017, when the global gag rule was reinstated and radically expanded, it has prohibited foreign non-governmental organizations from receiving any U.S. global health assistance if they provide, counsel, refer or advocate for legal abortion.

Many organizations have fought back against the global gag rule since it was imposed—including ours. We’ve worked with legislators, advocates and media outlets to try to undo this damaging U.S. policy.

We also support partners in Africa and Latin America who have had to go without U.S. funding—and therefore had to cut back on-the-ground health service delivery, as well as critical advocacy work.

A colleague in Southern Africa who works at a health service delivery organization that is not complying with the global gag rule told us, “Our outreach services previously allowed us to reach the most people and the most vulnerable groups with health services. We used to reach out to young people using our mobile units, but without funding these units are parked outside. Losing the reach with this group was a loss, and no one has picked it up.”

What are the Findings of This New Report?

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—a “watchdog” agency in charge of sharing unbiased, objective information with Congress—issued a new report on the consequences of the global gag rule.

It comes at the request of a bipartisan group of members of Congress from both the House and Senate who wanted to better understand the impact, and damage, resulting from the global gag rule.

What Does the GAO Global Gag Report Tell us?

The GAO documents over $12 billion in gagged funds across 1,300 global health grants in more than 70 countries.

They documented at least 54 projects that have lost funding, spanning a wide range of issues: family planning/reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, nutrition, and maternal and child health.

Is This the First Time a Report Has Come Out About the Global Gag Rule?

The GAO report follows a six-month review of the global gag rule conducted by the U.S. State Department—but that review was misleading and incomplete.

Though the State Department said they would conduct an additional review of the policy by December 2018, they have failed to do so.

This is yet another example of their reckless disregard for the health and human rights of people around the world—particularly women, young people and other communities who face systemic barriers to accessing care. 

Last year, Planned Parenthood Global released its own report on the global gag rule that identified three alarming themes.

The global gag rule:

  1. Disrupts the delivery of health services in areas of the world that are most in need.
  2. Rolls back progress made in countries that have fought to advance access to health care and human rights.
  3. Weakens national coalitions by breaking up long-standing partnerships and making it harder for groups to collaborate.

The GAO report provides telling statistics on the scope and scale of the global gag rule. Our report fleshes out what those numbers mean for people around the world.

One particularly disturbing fact is how the global gag rule is blocking women and young people from accessing information and services that are legal in their country.

The policy has limited exceptions where abortion is permissible—rape, incest and life endangerment of the woman. But with the welcome global trend towards liberalizing abortion laws, many countries recognize the right to abortion under a broader set of conditions.

In fact, previous analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) indicated that more than half of the countries receiving global health assistance allow legal abortion in at least one case not permissible under the global gag rule. 

As a representative of a humanitarian organization recently told me, “In the last 10 years, there has been a shift in abortion policies, liberalizing and creation of space to talk about sexual and reproductive health issues and safe abortion. There has been momentum built that now is likely going to be completely reversed.”

The Government Accountability Office report confirmed that this pessimism is warranted: The harmful global gag rule has been applied at an unprecedented scale, impacting a range of health services, and weakening health systems.

“The global gag rule continues to have a devastating impact on already fragile health systems, leaving people at increased risk of mortality and morbidity and blocking the ability of the U.S. to work and coordinate with qualified and highly skilled partners.” (Lorie Shaull)

The policy harms health care access for people around the world, especially those who already face systemic barriers to care, such as women and girls, young people, LGBTQI people, and sex workers. 

Throughout our nearly 50-year history, Planned Parenthood Global staff have seen challenging times. Yet we are resilient.

The global gag rule continues to have a devastating impact on already fragile health systems, leaving people at increased risk of mortality and morbidity and blocking the ability of the U.S. to work and coordinate with qualified and highly skilled partners.

In the face of a global pandemic, we see how global coordination and strong health systems are critical to ensuring health and promoting well-being.

This means supporting fragile health systems and permanently repealing the global gag rule.


The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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About

Monica Kerrigan is the incoming Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Global, the international arm of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It was founded nearly 50 years ago to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people, women, and families around the world.