The United States has always seen itself as the land of the free. A place believing everything and anything is possible and where irrespective of colour, gender, or religion a human has the right to have control over his/her body, his/her thoughts and his/her beliefs.
Yet certain rules and laws continue to baffle us and defy these basic notions, rules and laws reflecting the very opposite of what America prides itself upon One of the most significant of these aberrations being the Global Gag Rule.
In 1984, the US Administration lead by President Reagan, imposed restrictions on US funding for international family planning organisations. The ‘Mexico City Policy’, better known as the Global Gag Rule, meant overseas NGO’s were prohibited from receiving U.S. funds if, with their own funds and even in accordance with the laws of their own countries, they performed or actively promoted abortion as a form of family planning. This phrase ‘abortion as a form of family planning’ was interpreted to mean all abortions and so in order to continue to receive funds NGO’s were forced to stop the following:
Providing legal abortions, even in cases where a woman’s physical or mental health was in danger (the only exception is in the event of rape, incest, or where the life of the woman is endangered);
Providing abortion counselling;
Lobbying governments (including their own) for changes in abortion law or to decriminalise abortion;
Providing public education on abortion;
Provide any related services even if that was from their own private funds.
President Clinton rescinded the rule, but when George W. Bush came to office in January 2001 he directed the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to reinstate in full all of the requirements of the Mexico City Policy. This meant non governmental agencies were forced to cease any work that jeopardised their US funding and stop providing services that are permitted by the rule under the Regan administration, such as life-saving abortions, treatments for haemorrhaging following an unsafe abortion and even emergency contraception. With over 70,000 women dying every year from unsafe abortion, a figure that could largely be reduced with the right health information, services and law reforms, the implications of this new global gag are extremely worrying.
Further effects of the gag include the denial of vital funds to local family planning agencies in other countries if they provided family planning and abortion, even though, in many cases, these agencies are the only source of family planning services and reproductive health care in the region. This applies in particular to under-served, mainly rural areas, where the imposition of the Global Gag Rule means a decrease in women’s ability to access pregnancy related care, family planning and services for sexually transmissible diseases including HIV/AIDS. Thus the global gag rule disproportionately harms poor women for whom family planning services are out of reach without publicly funded programmes. In effect, it widens the gap between rich and poor by making health care a privilege of the wealthy.
Most organisations, including WOMANKIND do not advocate abortion as a method of contraception. Furthermore, they feel that given the right information and contraception women need to plan their pregnancies, most women are unlikely to terminate a pregnancy. They do believe, however, that women should have the right to control their own bodies and health, have access to information about their emotional and physical health and if the pregnancy is unwanted a woman should have the right to abortion. Rape, forced intercourse and contraceptive failure are not unusual events in the lives of many women and they should not be made to suffer the consequences of these undesired events.
What is interesting, however, is that the Global Gag Rule does not apply to any US organisations receiving funds, because this would be an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech in the US. Why then should it apply to other countries? Is this not hypocritical? Human rights organisations argue that by preventing health care organisations to lobby and speak out publicly the Global Gag Rule undermines their right to exercise freedom of speech. It is also anti-democratic by limiting foreign health groups in the activities they engage in when in the organisations own country these activities are allowed and legal. Furthermore, it makes women’s private decisions about childbearing subject to the political and public domain.
Why then does the US feel that it has the right to impose such restrictions on foreign countries and by that undermine their sovereignty, when it clearly does not and cannot do it in its own country. To force an NGO to choose between fighting for the freedom and rights it believes in or giving up its freedom of speech in order to receive vital funding is against what America claims it ultimately stands for. It seems freedom of speech ends at the US border. Well, human rights have no borders.