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Senate Committee Approves Amendment to Repeal “Global Gag Rule”

The Senate Appropriations Committee took an important stride forward in the endeavor to end permanently the regulation barring foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating abroad that receive family planning assistance from the federal government from performing abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother; and further prohibiting foreign NGOs that receive this funding to “provide counseling and referral for abortion” or “[i]nform the public or educate their government on the need to make safe abortion available,” even if using funds from other sources, which is commonly referred to as the “Global Gag Rule” (GGR).[1] On July 29, 2010, the Committee approved an amendment that would permanently repeal the GGR to S. 3676, the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2011
The GGR has been a political yo-yo of sorts since it was instituted in 1984; it was in effect during the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush; promptly rescinded by President Bill Clinton after he took office in 1993; reinstated by President George W. Bush two days after his inauguration on January 22, 2001, which, adding insult to injury, was the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade; and rescinded yet again in 2009 as one of President Barack Obama’s first official acts. The amendment to S. 3676, which was offered by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), would “permanently overturn the [GGR] and provide access to family planning services for women around the world,” thus putting an end to this flawed policy that leaves women’s ability to receive necessary medical care at the mercy of the president’s political beliefs.[2]
In the more than quarter of a century that the GGR has existed, it has withstood many legal and legislative challenges. Government entities, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and President George W. Bush, have been the target of lawsuits claiming that the GGR violates the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but none have been successful. Congress has mounted numerous attempts to overturn the GGR in the past two decades by attaching amendments to various bills; in all cases the language was stripped from the bills in conference, sometimes due to veto threats from both Presidents Bush.[3] Senator Lautenberg’s amendment to repeal the GGR passed in the Appropriations Committee with a strong eight vote margin; however, the bill it is attached it has yet to be considered by the full Senate.
The GGR is a destructive and ineffective policy that has caused irreparable harm to some of the world’s most economically vulnerable women, children, and families throughout its existence. Many experienced family planning organizations lost significant amounts of funding, donations of condoms and other forms of contraception, and technical assistance from USAID because they have refused to discontinue providing abortion services or referrals, as they consider withholding treatment or important medical information from their patients to be unethical.[4] As a result, they were forced to reduce the services they provide, dismiss staff members, cease distribution of contraception, and even shutter clinics, leaving impoverished communities without access to health care.[5] One such NGO, the Family Planning Association of Kenya, “lost 58% of its budget through direct and indirect cuts of U.S. funds,” severely limiting its ability to provide not only family planning services but also “numerous other health services, including child immunizations, HIV prevention, and nurse training.”[6] The GGR also impacted NGOs that accepted family planning assistance from USAID, as many organizations were overly cautious in ensuring that their activities did not violate the GGR, and as a result of this “overinterpretation, the [GGR] has hindered the effectiveness of some organizations’ comprehensive HIV/AIDS programs focusing on women and youth,” in addition to stifling the family planning advice they are able to give their clients.[7]
Further, the GGR does nothing to reduce abortion; rather, it “contribut[es] to the global crisis of unsafe abortion.”[8] While the GGR was in effect, the number of women able to access family planning advice and care was drastically reduced. NGOs that refused to abide by the GGR, and thus lost funding, had to reduce their services or close clinics. This left more women in the position of possibly needing abortion services, given that “[w]ithout family planning, women are unable to avoid unintended pregnancies.”[9] In addition, if health care providers are unable to provide safe, affordable abortion services or refer their clients to someone who can, women who wish to terminate their pregnancies are left with no choice other than to rely on unqualified charlatans who operate in unsanitary conditions, or utilize a number of possibly deadly folk remedies, including “[s]ticks, catheters, powdered glass, herbal mixtures, lemon juice, and cow dung.”[10] Finally, if respected family planning agencies are unable to participate in efforts to legalize abortion in their countries, the campaigns lose the legitimacy and experience they would provide and are less able to achieve the goal of access to safe abortion services.
“SIECUS appreciates President Obama’s quick action in rescinding the Global Gag Rule after his inauguration; however, we are all too aware that this damaging and ineffective policy could be reinstated by future presidents,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “We applaud Senator Lautenberg for his amendment to eliminate the global gag rule permanently, and urge Congress to include the amendment in the final State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill. We must ensure that future administrations cannot impose this ideologically driven policy, which would be unconstitutional in the United States, on the countries, and women, that depend on the economic assistance our government provides.”

[1] What You Need To Know about the Mexico City Policy Restrictions On U.S. Family Planning Assistance (Washington, DC: Population Action International, 2006), accessed 17 August 2010, <
GlobalGagRule.pdf>, 1; The Global Gag Rule Harms Democracy, Women and U.S. Interests Abroad (Chapel Hill, NC: Ipas, 2007), accessed 17 August 2010, <>, 1.

[2] Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, “Senate Committee Approves Lautenberg Amendment Overturning ‘Global Gag’ Rule,” press release, 29 July 2010, accessed 17 August 2010, <>.

[3] Population Action International, “Global Gag Rule Timeline Update,” accessed 17 August 2010, <

[4] Dina Bogecho and Melissa Upreti, “The Global Gag Rule—An Antithesis to the Rights-Based Approach to Health,” Health and Human Rights 9.1 (2006), accessed 17 August 2010, <>, 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Global Gag Rule Harms Democracy, Women and U.S. Interests Abroad, 2.

[8] Breaking the Silence: The Global Gag Rule’s Impact on Unsafe Abortion (New York: Center for Reproductive Rights, 2003), accessed 17 August 2010, <>, 5.

[9] International Reproductive Health and Family Planning: U.S. Funding Priorities and Policy Implications, (Washington, DC: Center for Health and Gender Equity, 2009), accessed 17 August 2010, <>, 1.

[10] Breaking the Silence: The Global Gag Rule’s Impact on Unsafe Abortion, 9.