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February 2, 2021 – President Joseph Biden has rescinded the “Global Gag Rule”—a devastating anti-abortion policy that undermined the health and rights of women around the world. The rule denied funding for foreign organizations providing abortion information or services.

The president took the action as part of a series of executive orders aimed to improve access to affordable health care in the U.S. and around the world. Other measures included reopening the Health Insurance Marketplace, taking steps to restore Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, and directing the Department of Health and Human Services to consider rescinding regulations that limited the Title X family planning program.

“Today the Biden administration took an important first step towards righting the Trump administration’s tremendous wrongs impacting access to reproductive health, rights, and justice,” said Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.  “In revoking the Global Gag Rule and acting to rescind the Domestic Gag Rule, President Biden is stopping policies that were intended to force reproductive health centers, in the U.S. and around the world, to stop providing and referring for abortion services.” Read Northup’s full statement here.

What Is the Global Gag Rule?

The Global Gag Rule (GGR) prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance funds from using those funds—or any of their own funds from any other sources—toprovide abortion care, referrals, or information, or to advocate for liberalization of abortion policies in their own country. The rule applies to all abortions performed or discussed as “a method of family planning”—and although exceptions are permitted for cases of rape or incest or if the pregnant person’s life is in danger, in practice the rule’s lack of clarity has created a chilling effect that effectively made the rule a complete ban.

By forbidding U.S. funds to be used for abortion services, the rule inhibits access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and information. But it’s known as a “gag rule” because of its silencing effect on knowledge, information and advocacy. Providers subject to the rule may not counsel on abortion services.

Officially called the Mexico City Policy, the rule was first implemented by the Reagan administration in 1984. Since then it has been repeatedly rescinded and reinstated from one administration to the next. After the Obama administration rescinded the rule in 2009, the Trump administration reinstated it in its first days in office in January 2017 and expanded it to affect not just U.S. family planning assistance, but all U.S. health assistance if a group did not abide by the rule.

What has been the Global Gag Rule’s impact?

The Gag Rule’s impacts have been many: It has decreased access to abortion care and information as well as to contraceptive care. It has interfered in the patient-provider relationship and caused cuts to family planning programs. It has silenced advocates of reproductive health and rights and reduced community outreach by health workers. 

“Public health and UN human rights bodies have long recognized that denying women and girls access to abortion does not stop women from seeking abortion services, it just makes the procedure less safe and contributes to maternal mortality,” as the Center explains in its report titled “The Global Gag Rule and Human Rights.”

In imposing the policy, the U.S. also abdicated its important role in advancing human rights, while infringing on other nations’ sovereignty. The Gag Rule undermines the U.S.’s commitments to international health and rights initiatives such as the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The rule also infringes on many of the human rights enumerated in international human rights treaties, including the rights to health, life, information, privacy, and equality. As the Center’s report notes, “Denying women access to services only needed by women, such as abortion, is a form of discrimination against women.”

The report continues, “The GGR undermines access to a vital component of women’s reproductive health care and has a chilling effect on access to other sexual and reproductive health services…[it] proliferates misinformation and heightens stigma related to sexual and reproductive health care, leading to greater mistrust in the health system. Ultimately, the GGR puts women’s health and human rights at risk.”

The U.S. is the world’s largest single donor to global health efforts. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) depend on U.S. funding—to the tune of some $12 billion per year, according to a March 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—and thus have been forced to comply with the Gag Rule. But many health care organizations opted to decline U.S. funding rather than comply. The GAO documented 54 such organizations which were then forced to reduce programs that worked to improve health outcomes in countries around the world.

Along with family planning and reproductive health, many organizations impacted by the rule provide services pertaining to HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, nutrition, water and sanitation, and maternal and child health care among other services. By forcing a choice between denial of funding or a reduced scope of care, the rule has resulted in increases in maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and incidents of HIV and AIDS, as well as in the breakdown of coalitions and partnerships that provide reproductive health care in poor and rural regions.

Rescinding the harmful Global Gag Rule is a vital first step in restoring the U.S.’s commitment to the health and human rights of women and girls around the world.

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