Women Want the Global Gag Rule Gone For Good

Written by Suzanne Petroni

Thirty years ago this week, the Ronald Reagan Administration announced at an international conference in Mexico City a harsh new policy that set the U.S. on a course of playing partisan politics with the lives and welfare of women around the world.

The “Mexico City Policy,” also known as the Global Gag Rule, denied U.S. family planning funds to any foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides, lobbies for or counsels on abortion, even when using its own resources. It has not remained in effect for those 30 years, though: It was rescinded by Bill Clinton in 1993, reinstated by George W. Bush in 2001 and rescinded by Barack Obama in 2009.

Evidence demonstrates that when implemented, the policy has not only limited women’s access to abortion information and services, but also disrupted basic family planning services, such as the provision of contraception by NGOs that became ineligible as a result of it. More recent evidence demonstrates that the policy has led to decreases in overall funding for family planning assistance, which puts women’s health in jeopardy.

In between this ping pong of presidential executive orders, Congress has attempted many times to legislate the Mexico City Policy into or out of existence. The introduction during the current Congress of the Global Democracy Promotion Act, which would prohibit the U.S. from imposing restrictions on foreign organizations that would be unconstitutional if applied to organizations in our own country, is the latest such attempt. And the fact that it was introduced by two female members of congress, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is telling. My research has shown that, over the years, a far higher percentage of Republicans have voted to make the Mexico City Policy permanent than have Democrats, and this partisan divide has increased steadily over time.

I’ve also found that female members of Congress are not only more likely to vote in support of international reproductive health and rights (and against the Mexico City Policy) than their male counterparts, but they also cosponsor legislation and come to the House floor to debate these issues in greater proportions as well. From 1995 to 2007, for example, women represented between seven and 17 percent of the House of Representatives, but female members represented 35 to 65 percent of those speaking in opposition to the Mexico City Policy, a rate three to six times their representation in Congress.

The passion that female members have on these issues carries over to the language and tone that they use in these debates. Female members of Congress, much more than male members, have spoken frequently and powerfully about the negative impacts of the policy on women in the developing world. As Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) remarked in a 1997 debate, “Somebody has to speak for the millions of women around this world.”

Having women in Congress makes a difference to women—and to their reproductive rights—around the world.

Finally, my research demonstrates that abortion and family planning are often confused or conflated in debates around the Mexico City Policy. Supporters of the policy often equate family planning with abortion in these debates, while opponents argue that restrictions on family planning programs lead to more unsafe abortions.

This is far from the only restriction on U.S. international reproductive health assistance. A decade before the Mexico City Policy was first instituted, the Helms Amendment went into place, prohibiting the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for “abortion as a method of family planning.” But ever since it was first introduced, the amendment has been implemented by Republican and Democratic administrations alike as a total ban on abortion funding through our foreign aid. This incorrect implementation means that the U.S. cannot help women and girls—even those facing pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, even when their life is endangered and even in countries where abortion is legally permitted—to access safe abortion services.

The Helms Amendment itself violates the human rights of women to safe and legal abortions and contributes to preventable deaths and injuries among millions of poor women worldwide. But going beyond the constraints of the law to restrict the U.S. from helping some of the world’s most vulnerable women to access safe abortion services, as is currently happening, is unnecessary and harmful. And it is something that can change immediately.

Even as we work toward having more women in Congress who can drive an agenda friendlier to women’s reproductive health and rights, including one that would legislate both the Mexico City Policy and Helms Amendment out of existence, President Obama can act now. The President should issue guidance that clarifies that the Helms Amendment does not prohibit U.S. foreign assistance from funding abortions, at a minimum, in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.

This simple move can mean life or death to millions of women around the world. And if Obama let Congress know he also wants to see the Mexico City Policy forever gone, that wouldn’t hurt either.

For more information on the Mexico City Policy, see ICRWs recent policy brief on the topic.

This post originally appeared on Ms. Magazine.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Joseph Glackin
Joseph Glackin2 years ago

As Bill Clinton said twenty years ago. abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

Joseph Glackin
Joseph Glackin2 years ago

GOPers want to make abortion common. necessary, and NEEDED

Joseph Glackin
Joseph Glackin2 years ago

As Bill Clinton said twenty years ago. abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

Terry Meek
Terry Meek2 years ago

I have one question for the House red members. WTF is wrong with you people???? Why don't you get out of women's vaginas and back into your office and do the work your constituents sent you to Washington for!! Birth Control has been around for decades----why in h**l has this become a fighting agenda as this point in time??? I know it's the crazyass people like Palin, her husband, Hobby Lobby, all the businesses that suddenly want to stop covering pills!!! Freaking pills that will stop abortions, stop unwanted children, stop starving children, stop families who can't afford another child, (and yes, husband/wives are still going to have sex) this idea that if you can't afford another child then you don't need to be having sex is behind some of these ridiculous attitudes and comments. Really? Really??? Is that why we and the media catch so many of the male House members who either visit other men in the evening or a "working girl"cause their wives have cut off all sex since they now have their children and no longer need to give in to temptation!

Janis K.
Janis K.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Maybe someday women will have total control of their reproductive organs and republicans will just get out of our way. Vote!

Danielle K.
Danielle K.2 years ago

It's one thing to say that we don't want our aid money going to certain services. But to tell organizations what they can do with their money from other sources? I don't think so. The pro-birthers obviously fail to realize that their policies harm more people than they help, that their philosophies don't save lives but endanger them. But then it's not about saving lives, is it? It's about controlling women and allowing patriarchal institutions to control women.

As Christine pointed out, women want access to contraception so they can control when they have children. Every woman of childbearing age should have access to effective contraception so she can space her children; it's better for her, better for the kids.

Joseph Glackin
Joseph Glackin2 years ago

Charlie R.--

Democrats (and other thinking) people admire and respect women and recognize their RIGHT to control their own bodies.
Repubiclans believe THEY have the right to control women.

It really is that simple.

Charlie Rush
Charlene Rush2 years ago

One thing is becoming increasingly clear.
Democrats love sex.
Republicans could care less.

Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants2 years ago

Christine is right

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thanks for sharing.