President Obama on January 23 affirmed his administration’s strong commitment to women’s health and international family planning assistance by rescinding the "global gag rule" and by committing the United States to restoring support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The global gag rule—also known as the Mexico City policy—prohibited overseas organizations from receiving U.S. family planning assistance if they used their non-U.S. funds to provide abortion information, services or counseling, or engaged in any abortion rights advocacy.
Tragically, the policy may have only increased the need for abortions (most of them unsafe) by reducing access to family planning services in many developing countries. It also created more obstacles for some of the world’s poorest women seeking information about how to avoid unsafe abortions. The global gag rule was first imposed by President Reagan in 1984, rescinded by President Clinton in 1993 and then reinstated by President Bush in 2001.
The Bush administration and other anti–family planning administrations had also denied U.S. support to UNFPA—which works to reduce the need for abortion by promoting voluntary family planning in more than 150 poor countries. The Reagan, Bush I and Bush II administrations all blocked any U.S. contribution to UNFPA on the grounds that it indirectly supported coercive abortions in China, despite U.S. government findings clearing UNFPA of any involvement in coercive practices.
Congress has consistently appropriated funds for UNFPA since the United States helped to found the agency in 1969. Most recently, UNFPA received U.S. contributions during the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration. The Bush administration reversed itself in 2002 and subsequently blocked about $244 million in funding over seven years.
There is overwhelming evidence that helping women avoid becoming pregnant too early, too late or too often benefits them and their children. Currently, 500 million women in the developing world are using some form of family planning, thereby preventing 187 million unintended pregnancies, 60 million unplanned births, 105 million induced abortions, 2.7 million infant deaths and 215,000 maternal deaths (which would leave 685,000 children motherless) each year.
However, another 200 million women throughout the developing world who would like to delay or limit their births lack access to contraceptives. Filling the unmet need for contraceptives would further reduce global rates of maternal mortality by 35% and would lower the overall number of abortions by 64%, many of which would have been unsafe abortions. More than 95% of abortions in Africa and Latin America are performed under unsafe circumstances, as are about 60% of abortions in Asia. Almost 70,000 women die each year from complications following unsafe abortions, and thousands more suffer serious, permanent injuries.
Despite the clear benefits of family planning for women worldwide, both the global gag rule and the refusal to fund UNFPA were part of a broader erosion of support for international family planning assistance under the Bush administration. The Obama administration’s reversal of both policies not only will strengthen the global fight against maternal and child mortality. It also is firmly in line with President Obama’s goal of finding common ground in the abortion debate by focusing on preventing unintended pregnancies—including through the provision of contraceptives—and thereby reducing the need for abortion.
However, even with these policy changes, direct U.S. funding for abortions overseas will continue to be prohibited under the Helms Amendment.
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