Congress to Vote on Law Limiting Abortion Abroad

In a matter of days, Congress may vote on the controversial global gag rule. It bars agencies in foreign countries that receive U.S. aid from providing abortion services or participate in public debate on abortion policies.


Buried in the items that Congress will consider as early as next week is the “global gag rule” that bars foreign organizations receiving U.S. aid from using their own money to provide abortion services or advocate reform in abortion policies.

The United States Agency for International Development provides $7.2 billion each year for humanitarian assistance and development overseas. This could mean that flood relief projects in Mozambique or anti-child labor projects in India potentially could lose their U.S. funding if their parent organizations lobby governments for changes in abortion laws, including requirements for safe practices.

Abortion rights advocates say this rule would be unconstitutional in the United States. It limits freedom of speech, they argue, by forbidding people who need the U.S. aid from participating in the democratic process in their own countries.

If retained in this year's legislation, the so-called global gag rule will be extremely difficult to remove. Family planning advocates are calling this congressional session their best shot at eliminating the controversial law.

Last year, pro-choice advocates were backed into a corner when the congressional leadership, at the urging of Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., refused to pay United Nations debts without passing the gag rule. This provision was tied to legislation authorizing the government to pay up and thus retain its membership in the United Nations.

Congress remained deadlocked over this issue and other legislation through mid-November, one and a half months into the current fiscal year. Eventually, as part of a complicated compromise, the “global gag rule” passed both houses and President Clinton signed it into law.

After the law passed, the president rescued a small portion of U.S. aid for organizations abroad that lobby for changes in family planning. In doing so, he bargained away $12.5 million of those funds, continuing a long downward trend in U.S. aid for family planning, from more than $500 million in 1995 to $370 million in 2000.

Anti-choice forces argue that human life should be protected, that abortion is inherently wrong wherever it occurs and that the United States should not fund activities, even legal ones, that aim to make abortion legal, safe or easier to obtain.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is leading the effort to kill it. “It is outrageous for the greatest democracy in the world to impose undemocratic restrictions on foreign organizations,” Lowey said. “Congress should embrace the Golden Rule, not the gag rule.”

Last week, Lowey tried to persuade the House Appropriations Committee to strike the provision. When that failed, she proposed that foreign organizations funded by the U.S. aid agency could not be held to more stringent requirements than their sister organizations operating in the United States. Neither could organizations abroad be denied funds for performing services legal in their own countries. The provision, directly contradicting the gag rule, failed 34-26, leaving the bill in exactly the same form as last year.

Rep. Smith was out of the country and unavailable for comment on his current plans to push for the bill.

A leading conservation group, the Sierra Club, issued a report indicating that the gag rule threatens the health of women and the environment. The club estimated that the provision is causing cuts in family planning funding that could result in 260,000 unwanted pregnancies; 9,400 maternal and infant deaths;7,400 cases of serious illness or injury related to childbirth and more than 100,000 additional abortions.

Julia Ernst, counsel for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, argued in a brief to representatives that the gag rule also undermines women's participation in democratic decision-making.

“The U.S. cannot have it both ways—supporting women with one hand and silencing them with another,” she said. Staff in family planning centers, she added, often witness the effects of illegal, unsafe abortions and often feel called upon to acts as advocates.

“The new global gag rule is a slippery slope that could lead to other intolerable restrictions on speech that certain members of Congress dislike,” Ernst said.