The much-anticipated result of the Nov. 4 U.S. presidential election brought to many a great sense of hope, most notably for an end to the divisive, reactionary policies of outgoing President George W. Bush. The transitional team of President-elect Barack Obama compiled a list of several of these policies dealing with various issues with the hope they will be swiftly overturned.
One of these policies is the Global Gag Rule. Introduced in 1984 by former President Ronald Reagan, this policy aims to restrict the actions of foreign non-governmental organizations funded by the United States Agency for International Development with the intention of discouraging abortion in developing countries. Under the Global Gag Rule, a USAID-funded NGO, when engaged in development and humanitarian assistance, is forbidden from informing women about safe abortion, the dangers of illegal abortion and even from expressing support for safe abortion legislation in their country of origin or operation. Even research on the effects of illegal abortion is restricted. However, organizations are free to publicly express anti-abortion views and discourage women from resorting to the procedure. The Global Gag Rule applies even if these NGOs are using non-U.S. money to fund such activities and includes NGOs operating in countries where abortion is legal.
The Global Gag Rule was temporarily lifted under the Clinton administration, only to be re-introduced by the Bush administration in early 2001. In 2003, under the Bush administration, the rule was extended to include organizations funded by the U.S. Department of State. Together, USAID and the U.S. Department of State make up a significant portion of funding for NGOs working in developing countries. Opting out of this funding would be nearly impossible. This policy has been challenged several times on the grounds that it would be considered unconstitutional if applied to domestic organizations. Yet any attempt to overturn the Global Gag Rule has been met with presidential veto.
With so many aid organizations essentially bound to this legislation, the Global Gag Rule largely succeeds in withholding important, potentially life-saving information from women. The results are devastating. In the developing world, as is the case in the developed world, women are disproportionately affected by poverty. Many women in the developing world have limited or no access to adequate sexual health and family planning services. In war-affected countries, rape and sexual assault are common weapons used against women. Many women resort to abortion in these cases, yet undergo dangerous, illegal procedures, unaware of the existence of safer legal alternatives. According to the International Women's Health Coalition, an estimated 78,000 women die every year from complications arising from illegal abortion. These facts demonstrate all too clearly how policies based solely on promoting abstinence and forced pregnancy are not only ignorant of the reality faced by these women, but ultimately do more harm than good.
When Obama is sworn in as President of the United States, the citizens of the U.S., as well as the rest of the world, will expect the sweeping changes promised during his campaign. The overturn of the Global Gag Rule would result in significant change for women living in developing and war-torn countries and would be the first of many steps taken towards improving their quality of life.