The Global Gag Rule Is Just the First Step if We Want To Champion Reproductive Freedom for All

Updated Jan. 28 at 9:10 a.m. PT.

Rescinding the global gag rule is only the tip of the iceberg to ensuring that people—no matter who they are or where they live—can access abortion services.

The Global Gag Rule Is Just the First Step if We Want To Champion Reproductive Freedom for All
A pro-choice demonstration during oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Biden’s statement last week on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade signaled his commitment to protecting reproductive freedom. We agree it is crucial that everyone has access to reproductive health care, “no matter their income, race, zip code, health insurance status or immigration status,” and that sentiment must apply to all people, no matter where in the world they live—in the United States or abroad. And then that commitment must become action.

One seemingly small, immediate action would be to use the word “abortion.” In the Roe Day statement, it was curiously absent. Abortion is health care—and when our leaders avoid the word “abortion,” even though that is what they mean, they stigmatize and directly harm the very people who want and need access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion.  

President Biden will issue an executive order rescinding the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, on Thursday; Dr. Anthony Fauci telegraphed this move on Jan. 21 in the WHO meeting.

The global gag rule is an egregious U.S. foreign policy that restricts foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. global health funds from using their own resources to engage in abortion-related work. Since it was introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the global gag rule has been used as a political football—rescinded by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican ones.

Make no mistake, rescinding the global gag rule is a major step to expanding access to abortion services overseas, but it is only the tip of the iceberg to ensuring that people—no matter who they are or where they live—can access abortion services. 

For decades, Republican administrations have instituted the global gag rule, which has blocked health care access, stifled local advocacy efforts, and undermined reproductive rights worldwide—and Democratic presidential administrations have repealed it. In order to make sure that no future president can ever reinstate the global gag rule, Congress must pass the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act, introduced Thursday in the House by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Senate by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Moreover, the global gag rule is not the only restrictive U.S. policy to act as a barrier for people who need and want abortion services. But it garners more attention from politicians and the media than the Helms Amendment—an anti-rights and racist policy that has been in effect since 1973, when it was introduced by the late Sen. Jesse Helms from North Carolina.

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The Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for “the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.”  In practice though, the Helms Amendment is applied as a total ban on anything related to abortion—a ban on services, information and counseling, and even training and equipment for providers. And sadly, in practice, this extends to cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.

The Global Gag Rule Is Just the First Step if We Want To Champion Reproductive Freedom for All
Seen at a Stop Kavanaugh rally at U.S. Capitol Grounds on September 4, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Women and girls—mostly Black or brown women and girls—in the Global South bear the greatest burden of the Helms Amendment, and it is this racist and neocolonialist policy that is directly linked to staggering maternal health outcomes. Thirty-five million people around the world resort to abortion with unsafe methods, millions are injured, and tens of thousands die each year.

The Biden administration can—and should—move to expand U.S. foreign assistance support for abortion care to the maximum extent allowed under the Helms Amendment, including for abortion information, and counseling. And Congress must repeal the Helms Amendment in its entirety by passing the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act.

If Helms remains in place, without any clarification or legal specificity on what is allowed under the exceptions to the law, when the global gag rule is repealed, the United States will continue to neglect, stigmatize and separate abortion care and all of U.S. foreign assistance will still be unavailable for abortion services, training and equipment. To be clear, the global gag rule impacts about $12 billion in foreign assistance funds—but the Helms Amendment impacts the entirety of the U.S. foreign aid budget, roughly $40 billion, because it applies to all U.S. funding for governments, NGOS and humanitarian funding.

Today, millions are denied care because providers are not only barred from performing services, many believe they cannot even tell their patients abortion is a legal option. This can change instantly with simple clarification and guidance from the Biden administration that allows U.S. foreign aid to be used to provide information and counseling about all legal pregnancy options.

This action would have an impact immediately on countless people who are currently denied access to critical health information on abortion. This means that when a patient comes into a U.S.-funded clinic for abortion services, they will be able to get the information and comprehensive counseling that they need so that they are able to make the best decision for themselves and their families and access those services safely.

We expect the Biden administration to not only right the wrongs caused by four years of attacks on abortion rights here at home and globally, but to push a progressive agenda for reproductive justice for all. This administration must reassert the U.S.’s leadership position as a human rights defender, reject harmful domestic and foreign policies, such as the Hyde, Helms Amendment and the global gag rule, and champion support for their permanent repeal. 

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About and

Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international nonprofit working with partners around the world to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception.
Bethany Van Kampen Saravia is a senior legal and policy advisor for Ipas, where she leads their U.S. abortion foreign policy work, specifically efforts to repeal the Helms Amendment. Prior to joining Ipas, she worked as a senior policy analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and as a legislative fellow in the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.). She received her law degree and master of social work from Tulane University, where she co-founded and served as president of If/When/How and was a member of the Tulane Domestic Violence Law Clinic and the Legislative and Administrative Advocacy Clinic.