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In 2013, Wendy Davis’ now-famous filibuster pushed the issue of women’s reproductive rights in the United States into the limelight. Davis stood for a monumental 11 hours, donning pink running shoes with her business suit, to block a bill that would restrict abortion rights.

Davis galvanized pro-choice activists across the country (and inflamed pro-lifers), but although she managed to stir great fuss over the rights of women on U.S. soil, there has been no such figure to represent the issue of the profound effect of U.S. policy on reproductive rights abroad.

It is no secret that much of the world’s foreign aid comes from the United States. In a display of the country’s enormous wealth, the USA gave the largest amount in dollar figures, standing around 32 billion dollars in 2013, according to the OECD. (Paradoxically, it is also one of the countries that gave the least money in terms of percentage of its GNI, spending 0.19 percent. The most generous country was actually Norway, which dedicated 1.07 percent of it’s GNI to foreign aid.)

What the USA decides to do with its money, therefore, has a huge impact on countries dependent on foreign aid. Many think once foreign aid is given, the donor has no control of it, but the USA can and does impose certain conditions for the use of its aid money. Until recently, one of these was the Mexico City Policy, known by opponents as the Global Gag Rule.

The Global Gag Rule in the U.S. government has played out like a Democrat-Republican tug-of-war. Reagan imposed it in 1984, Clinton rescinded it in 1993, George Bush revived it in 2001 and Obama tossed it in 2009. Development workers fear the policy’s reinstatement in 2016 should a Republican president be elected. It is a point of contention among Democrats and Republicans.

The Global Gag Rule states that U.S aid money cannot be used by any NGO using non-U.S aid money to provide abortion.

Instituted by political conservatives, the mindset behind the Global Gag Rule is that by withholding funds, the number of abortions will be reduced, either by limiting the capacity of NGOs to carry them out, or by voluntarily ceasing provision of the practice for fear of losing funding.

Yet, the opposite has been proven to be true. The Global Gag Rule doesn’t prevent abortions. It prevents safe abortions.

A 2011 Stanford study showed abortion rates in Sub-Saharan Africa rose during the period in which the Mexico City Policy was implemented, suggesting, “reduced financial support for family planning may have led women to substitute abortion for contraception.” An IFPRI study in Ghana yielded similar results, concluding the policy did more than fail at reducing abortions, suggesting,

the policy did not achieve its purpose of reducing the use of abortion. Yet a further unintended consequence is perhaps of greater import: 5 out of 6 of those additional pregnancies became unwanted or unplanned births. These additional births are concentrated among the poorest and least educated mothers. Other women allowed unplanned pregnancies to become unplanned births at an estimated rate of about 66 percent. Those without primary education did so at a rate of 88 percent, and the poorest of the poor at 100 percent. Given the evidence that maternal poverty and education are significant predictors of child outcomes, it seems this policy increased the number of children at risk for poor health.

The effects of the Global Gag Rule go far beyond. NGOs lacking funding must downsize, reduce services and deny thousands of women access to contraceptives and family planning services.  As the Guttmacher Institute adds, any remaining providers face additional challenges, with a report stating, “government clinics, exempt from the gag rule, were never able to pick up the slack nor regain the trust of women turned away by the NGOs.”

For more information:

  • PAI, an organization dedicated to the provision of family planning services, has published multiple reports on the effects of the Global Gag Rule, both abroad and in the United States.
  • The Center for Health and Gender Equity has resources explaining the policy in-depth.
  • The Guttmacher Institute’s extensive report on the damage done by the Global Gag Rule.

Cover Photo Credit, Irma Pinto, Flickr Creative Commons

The Conversation

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