Boston Globe, August 12, 2004
Lift the family planning gag
By Marty Meehan and Gloria Feldt
THIS WEEK marks the 20th anniversary of a profound
and misguided change in US foreign policy:
the Reagan administration's "global gag
rule," which was first announced at an
international family planning conference in
Mexico City in August 1984.
The "Mexico City" policy prohibits
US dollars and contraceptive supplies from
going to any international family planning
program that provides abortions or counsels
women about their reproductive health options.
The policy isn't about money going to pay for
abortions. Even those groups that use only
private funds for abortion services -- where
abortion is legal -- are barred from assistance.
This is money going to family planning programs.
President Clinton rescinded the Mexico City policy
in 1993. But President Bush reinstated and
expanded it on his first day in office. Now
not only are organizations that provide or
counsel about abortion services affected; those
that dare to take part in a public discussion
about legalizing abortion are also affected
(hence the name "global gag rule").
Of course, those that call for restricting
abortion rights are not affected.
This policy has nothing to do with government-sponsored
abortions overseas. Ten years before the gag
rule was in place the law strictly prohibited
that. This policy is about disqualifying prochoice
organizations from receiving US international
family planning funding.
Under Bush's policy, organizations that play
a vital role in women's health are forced to
make an impossible choice. If they refuse to
be "gagged," they lose the funding
that enables them to help women and families
who are cut off from basic health care and
family planning. But if they accept funding,
they must accept restrictions that jeopardize
the health of the women they serve.
The most tragic ramifications have been felt
in the developing world. In Kenya, for example,
two of the leading family planning organizations
have been forced to shut down five clinics
dispensing aid from prenatal care and vaccinations
to malaria screening and AIDS prevention. Kenya's
experience is common, according to "Access
Denied," a report on the impact of the
global gag rule on developing nations. Researchers
found that programs for rural communities and
urban slums have been scaled back by as much
as 50 percent. As a result more women are turning
to unsafe abortion -- a leading cause of death
for young women in much of Africa -- because
they lack access to family planning information
and essential contraceptive supplies.
International family planning programs work.
For more than 30 years, the United States has
supported programs in some of the poorest regions
of the world to deliver voluntary family planning
and reproductive health services. These programs
help educate and empower women to take better
care of themselves, their families, and their
communities. Every day, international family
planning services save lives, reduce the number
of unintended pregnancies, combat the scourge
of global HIV/AIDS, and promote sustainable
Consider the facts. More than 500,000 women die
annually from pregnancy-related causes. Babies
of women who die in childbirth are unlikely
to survive one year. Family planning can cut
maternal mortality rates by 25 percent and
infant mortality rates even further.
More than 38 million people live with HIV/AIDS
worldwide. Family planning programs provide
education and contraceptives that play an important
role in curbing the spread of the pandemic.
More than 80 million unintended pregnancies occur
annually worldwide, and more than half of them
result in abortion (78,000 women die every
year from unsafe abortions). Family planning
reduces the need for abortion.
These are not new issues. A decade ago, the nations
of the world came together in Cairo at the
International Conference on Population and
Development with a unified vision of improving
the quality of life for women, families, and
the environment. They made a promise to commit
moral and financial resources to ensuring that
all people have access to information and services
that include health care, family planning,
and a basic education.
The United States was a leader in that effort.
But with the advent of the current global gag
rule, this work is threatened. It is the tragic
outcome of a decision-making process that puts
blind ideology before sound public health practice
and global cooperation.
Thousands of Americans have joined together in
the campaign "A Mother's Promise the World
Must Keep" to call on our government to
cooperate with other nations to meet our promise.
We must restore common sense and America's
leadership role by reversing this misguided
So many lives are at stake. We can't afford to
exclude any family planning organization that
can safely and effectively provide comprehensive
reproductive health services. America should
be leading -- not gagging -- global efforts
to improve women's health.
US Representative Marty Meehan represents
the Fifth Congressional District of Massachusetts.
Gloria Feldt is president of the Planned Parenthood
Federation of America.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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