Advocates Fear Bush to Reinstate Global Gag Rule

Every minute of every day, a woman somewhere in the world dies as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. Advocates say they must be free to provide legal information on family planning and reproductive rights. Will the Bush administration let them?

Baby and mother

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Women's advocates are increasingly anxious about the new Bush administration's policies on reproductive rights, especially those affecting women in other countries where each year about 585,000 women die from pregnancy or childbirth.

As planners put the finishing touches on inaugural festivities, the clock is already running down on an intensely controversial issue facing Bush in the early days of his presidency: whether to reinstate what is called the global gag rule.

It bars international nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. family planning funds from talking about abortion with their patients, providing abortion services, or lobbying to change the antiabortion laws in countries outside the United States. Even non-U.S. organizations that use their own funds or other revenues for these purposes, would be barred from receiving U.S. cash for their other family planning programs.

The World Health Organization estimates that many of the more than half-million deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth are actually from botched and illegal abortions.

“President Bill Clinton had consistently vetoed the global gag rule in place under Presidents Reagan and Bush, but less restrictive versions of the rule reappeared as the White House was forced to compromise with conservative Congressional Republicans. In October of last year Congress agreed to lift restrictions and allocate $425 million for family planning abroad, but deliberately held the money up until February 15, to give a new president the opportunity to reinstate the gag rule and spending limitations.”

Decision Could Come as Early as Saturday

Women's health advocates said Thursday there were strong indications that Bush will reinstate the global gag rule as early as Saturday, but Bush has until Feb. 15 to make the decision.

Bush must issue an executive order by that date in order to reinstate the gag rule. If he does nothing, the funds are released without the rule.

Bush and his team have not commented. Although Secretary of State-designate Gen. Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser-designate Condoleezza Rice are both pro-choice, it was not known whether they would weigh in during administration discussions about foreign assistance and reproductive health of women in developing countries.

Anti-abortion activists have been lobbying Bush and his advisers, according to women's advocates who follow the issues. They, too, are trying to influence the new administration to show compassion for women overburdened with unplanned births too close together.

“When you look at the health of people in developing countries and developed countries, the biggest differential is safe motherhood,” says Global Health Council President Dr. Nils Daulaire. “But the attention of the international community has not really been focused on this issue.”

Keenly aware of the issues and the Feb. 15 deadline, the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and other women's health advocates recently gathered in Washington to focus attention on the need to increase family planning funds and reduce the maternal death rate. Members of the alliance wear crossed white ribbons, similar to the red ribbons that have become emblematic of the fight against AIDS.

“There are several reasons why the issue of maternal mortality has been muted,” said Dr. Khama O. Rogo, vice president for Africa and adviser on global and medical affairs at Ipas, an international women's health organization.

“It's less scientifically challenging. There have been no new discoveries in the last 50 years, no silver bullet solutions, no high-tech solutions,” he told the White Ribbon Alliance conference in Washington.

Many believe the solutions are simple: information about and access to family planning services, including contraceptive information, legal abortions, infant care and education for women and girls.

Holding Their Breath: Will Bush Show Compassion for Women

“Women should not die in pregnancy and childbirth,” says Theresa Shaver, safe motherhood and childhood survival adviser at NGO Networks for Health. “Everyone's concerned, everyone is worried. They're holding their breath to see what will happen.”

Adds Patricia Sears, senior advisor for public affairs at the Center for Development and Population Activities. “I would not be surprised if he put in the global gag rule as an executive order between now and Feb. 15.”

Advocates are also concerned that the new administration and the Republican Congress could harm women's health further by cutting funding for international family planning and safe motherhood programs.

In 1995, funding for family planning in the foreign aid bill was $541.6 million. For the last five years, it's been $385 million. For fiscal year 2001, it rose to $425 million.

Foreign nongovernmental organizations have been prevented from using U.S. funds for abortion services since 1973. But the gag rule language goes one step further by even forbidding discussion and lobbying. These restrictions have become the subject of passionate debate and political maneuvering. Critics say that the rule prohibits in other countries the kind of lobbying that is legal in the United States and, in fact, considered part of the democratic system.

Advocates say that the gag rule would not only prevent women from obtaining abortions or information about abortions, but also cripple the nongovernmental organizations that provide many other pregnancy and childbirth-related services-programs already under-funded.

Advocates' Emotions Range From Hope to Trepidation

As they wait to see what Bush will do, the White Ribbon Alliance and other advocacy groups warn of a firestorm of anger and controversy if Bush reinstates the global gag rule.

“We've heard from people on the Bush team that they see health issues as important and want to give a human face to compassionate conservatism,” says Daulaire of the Global Health Council. “We hope the administration will allow the deadline to pass without turning it into a very hot and very partisan debate.”

Despite their trepidation, many advocates acknowledge that the combination of a conservative Republican White House and Congress may help mobilize supporters of reproductive rights. And it might offer an opportunity for the pro-choice movement to stress a common-ground message that it seeks fewer abortions.

“It may be a healthy challenge. ... It's going to force us to step back and look at our audience,” said Sears from the Center for Development and Population Activities. She added the debate could be usefully redirected by stressing that family planning, education and services reduce the need for abortions.

“We can get away from sounding like abortion advocates,” Sears said. “No woman wants to have an abortion.”

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer who divides her time between Washington, D.C., and northern New England. She covers education, politics, women's issues and other topics.