Obama Repeals Global Gag Rule

President Obama signed an executive order late Friday afternoon ending the Global Gag Rule.

President Obama’s decision
to lift the Global Gag Rule gives me extraordinary reason to rejoice.
I became Pathfinder International’s president in 1985, shortly after
President Reagan imposed the original version of the Global Gag Rule
(also known as the Mexico City Policy). I have openly opposed the gag
rule, working for its repeal ever since.

At Pathfinder, we challenged this harmful policy
in federal court in the late 1980s. Although we did not obtain an outright
victory in the courts, the lawsuit forced the U.S. government to clarify
what activities were legally permissible under the rule, paving the
way for resumption of life-saving post-abortion medical services. Indeed,
that legal challenge revealed to the court that among the repercussions
of the U.S. gag rule were the preventable deaths of women in the globe’s
poorest countries.

Pathfinder was the first organization to negotiate
a cooperative agreement with USAID after the implementation of the Mexico
City Policy. And I can tell you from personal observation that the gag
rule was ineffective in doing what its proponents sought or claimed
to seek. It did not reduce abortion. Rather, it resulted in an attack
on the delivery of family planning services–services that by definition
help to reduce the need for abortions. Outstanding providers
of reproductive health services lost critical funding, resulting in
shortfalls of contraceptive supplies and increases in unintended pregnancies.
Dangerous abortions multiplied as responsible service providers stopped
offering safe abortion services for fear of American scrutiny.

Furthermore, the policy undermined
America’s credibility in promoting democracy and free speech abroad.
Free expression–free speech–is a requirement of a democratic society.
How can we–indeed, how dare we–spend foreign assistance teaching
democratic aspirations on the one hand, and then deny free speech on
the other, when the subject happens to displease us?

In the countries where Pathfinder works, foreign NGOs that rely on American
foreign assistance have been trapped between obeying their nation’s
laws and American policies. The American government’s disregard for
the sovereignty of others and the hypocrisy of American actions, have
not been lost on other countries. Women have been refused services,
or even referral to services without regard to the laws of their land.
NGOs have been denied U.S. funding without consideration for the quality
of care they provided.

Some organizations in less
developed countries chose to resist the gag rule–organizations like
the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia (FGAE), which Pathfinder
helped establish in the 1960s. FGAE was the very first, and continually
one of the most effective, family planning organizations in the country,
relying heavily on U.S. funding. Their networks extended into the most
rural and impoverished areas, reaching the most vulnerable women. When
President Bush reinstated the gag rule in 2001, they were determined
to continue participating in Ethiopia’s on-going national debate around
unsafe abortion. By them choosing to simply discuss abortion, not only
was Pathfinder forced to sever our relationship with them, they lost
35 percent of their financial resources, donated contraceptives, critical
technical support, and training programs.

Prior to the reinstatement of the
gag rule, Pathfinder‘s criteria for selecting in-country
partners read like a guide on a good management. Our checklist was something like the following:

  • Which
    organization provides the highest quality of care?
  • What
    is the most cost-effective organization?
  • Which
    organization is managed well?
  • Which organization has
    the best capacity to expand in order to reach the poorest of the poor?
  • Which organization is the
    most sincerely committed to improving the conditions of its people?


However, during the years that
the gag rule was imposed, the overriding criteria that the U.S. government
wished to enforce was whether an organization was sufficiently anti-abortion,
with no regard to anything else.

Today’s repeal of the
Global Gag Rule by President Obama will enable Pathfinder, and a variety of other outstanding
organizations, to once again work with the most effective partners,
bringing family planning services to the women most in need. I applaud
the president for taking bold and immediate action to improve the lives
of women and their families, especially in the world’s most impoverished

However, even as I applaud
and celebrate this decision by America’s new president, I am reminded
of the previous administration’s imposition of the Anti-prostitution
Loyalty Oath, which is still being enforced. The Anti-prostitution Loyalty
Oath requires that any American or foreign organization that receives
U.S. global HIV/AIDS funds must formally pledge their opposition to
prostitution in order to remain eligible for funding. Under this pledge
requirement, recipients are forced to censor even their privately-funded
speech and activities regarding the most effective ways to engage high-risk
groups in HIV prevention. In other words, the United States government
has told private organizations, not just what they must do with U.S.
government funds, but what they must think and believe.

Any organization that works
to address the tragedy of HIV/AIDS in less developed countries must
confront head-on the need to serve sex workers. If there is a single
class of citizens on this planet who are more powerless and desperate,
I wouldn’t know where to find them.

Pathfinder does not believe that it is sound
policy to judge or condemn the very people we endeavor to serve. Furthermore,
we believe that private organizations must insist upon free speech.
Our government also has an obligation to uphold, not infringe upon,
that right. That’s why, several years ago, Pathfinder joined Alliance for Open Society International
in challenging this infringement in federal court. In May 2006, the
court ruled in our favor, agreeing that the anti-prostitution loyalty
oath violates the First Amendment by restricting privately-funded free
speech and forcing organizations to adopt the government’s view point.
Last fall, the court reaffirmed this decision, expanding the case to
include two preeminent public health and humanitarian membership organizations, Global Health Council and

Astonishingly, the U.S. government
is presently appealing this decision. Gag rules and loyalty oaths should
be rejected as politics of the past. While I commend today’s decision,
I appeal to President Obama and his administration to continue fulfilling
his promise to promote science over ideology, to uphold the Constitution,
and affirm that democracy, not dogma, be the hallmarks of the new American
foreign policy.

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  • alexm

    Oh happy day!  I never thought we’d see the end of the global gag rule so soon.  I was born in 1985 – From my inexperienced perspective this is tremendously exciting!

    The personal is political.

  • invalid-0

    Woo hoo so exciting! Frustrating that it keeps going back and forth, it needs to be overturned forever. Thank you President Obama for choosing science over ideology.

    Viva la choice and good health care.

  • invalid-0

    What a wonderful time to be alive and what a wonderful job RHreality Check does!

  • invalid-0

    i’ve been trying to get correct information about the global gag rule. my main questions are 1)i’ve heard that the rule prevented NGOs from receiving U.S. gov’t funds for any of their services (distribution of contraceptives, sex ed., maternal/child health care, etc…) if the NGO provided abortion services EVEN if the abortion services themselves were not funded by U.S. gov’t money. Is this true? 2) Does the reversal of the global gag rule mean that some of the U.S. gov’t money goes towards funding abortions or does it just go towards other services that an NGO provides? both questions are pretty much the same/related.

    I agree with the viewpoint of the writer of this article but part of it made me wonder why faith affiliated NGOs are closely watched for any type of evangelism type work, which as far as i understand, is illegal to do when the NGO receives gov’t funds. I agree that the gov’t should not infringe on a person’s right to free speech concerning the topic of abortion. I’m interested if this view then holds true for an employee wanting to share their religious views. I have limited understanding of all of this and am looking to find answers to my questions as well as learn more about what others think. thanks for taking the time to respond.

  • invalid-0

    1. That is true, but it goes even further than that. If the NGO so much as gave referrals for abortion services—just pointed a woman to an abortion provider, without performing the procedure themselves—they would be ineligible for funding. This is why the regulation was often described as a “gag rule”; NGOs couldn’t even give information without running afoul of it.

    2. There are other laws in place that prevent U.S. funding from directly funding abortion services by NGOs. However, NGOs typically receive funds from other sources as well as the U.S., so (gag rule aside) it is straightforward to apply U.S. funds solely to non-abortion budget items, and thereby abide with the funding restrictions.

    As for restrictions on religiously-affiliated NGOs and their agents, I’ll have to let someone else answer that….

    (If any of the above is incorrect, please let us know!)

  • http://www.dinahproject.com/blog.asp invalid-0

    We spent so much effort trying to explain the idiocy of the Gag Rule. We had models, facts and statitstics to back us up, but as long as the religious right was calling the shots, our claims were just whistling in the wind.

    The ease with which the repeal has happened makes me think its who you know and not what you know that counts. I’m a little saddened by my cynical realization.

  • invalid-0

    That gag rule is convoluted and complex, making it extremely difficult to implement (yet another reason this is such bad policy). In answer to your first question, YES! No US funds can go to an NGO that performs abortion related services — counseling, referrals, even participating in public forums about the issue of unsafe abortion — even with its own money. Since US government funds pass through US organizations first (who provide the training, supplies, and technical assistance in so many areas for their foreign partners), they must monitor ALL of the activities and speech of its foreign partners — even those funded by other donors. This can be almost impossible to do. US organizations are put in the uncomfortable position of having to police and monitor their partners activities.

    In terms of question #2: there is another US law that has been on the books since 1973 called the Helms Amendment. This prohibits the use of ANY US funds for abortion. So the reversal of the gag rule means a couple of things: US organizations will now be able to partner with more foreign organizations, meaning they’ll be able to reach more people and expand their geographic reach; and 2) those foreign NGOS that are involved in some kind of abortion related activity can now — after 8 years — get US donated contraceptives, technical assistance and funding from the U.S. The funds will NOT go towards the provision of abortions because of the Helms amendment.

    Hope this helps –

  • jodi-jacobson

    This whole issue is widely misunderstood, in part because as Mudhens points out, vague language and the politicization of women’s basic rights and health have made rational discussion of these issues difficult and have, I believe purposefully, been used to further cloud the issue.

    The Helms amendment speaks to the issue of abortion "as a method of family planning," but does not technically forbid, in fact supposedly allows the provision of abortions with US funding in cases of rape, incest and danger to the woman’s life.  But even this attempt in an amendment by an otherwise highly conservative legislator has never really been put into practice.

    As Patty Skuster has written before on RHRC

    A 1994 policy interpretation by USAID stated that the Helms Amendment
    permits funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to
    the life of the woman. But USAID has yet to fund any programs or services
    that meet these conditions.  Annual foreign aid appropriations
    bills specify that the Helms Amendment should not prohibit providing
    information or counseling about all pregnancy options, and this also
    has never been implemented – indeed the global gag rule has undermined
    this condition.  

    The gag rule confuses things further, as Mudhens notes, by undermining congressional intent in actually allowing us to save women’s lives– which has tragic consequences in countries where unsafe abortion is the leading cause or one among the 3 leading causes of maternal death and disability.


  • invalid-0

    for helping me understand this more. I can see now why i’ve had so much difficulty finding answers-a lot of it isn’t straight forward which doesn’t surprise me-it’s the government after all. what is it gonna take to prevent the global gag rule from being reversed every time a democrat pres. is elected and put back in to place every time a republican pres. is elected? is there really no way to keep it in place regardless of who is in office? again, i’m pretty ignorant about all of this.

  • invalid-0

    As an american taxpayer i think i should have a say in where my money goes. I dont want my money to in any way shape or form go towards funding abortions its pretty much being an acomplice in murder

  • heather-corinna

    I’ve felt that way about my taxes going into the military my whole life.  Of course, while I may feel that way about it myself, I can also find sound arguments from smart people that express that military funding saves lives.  I may or may not agree with them, but I’d have to be quite simple-minded not to see that there is more than just my own view, and not to recognize that a nation represents more than just myself and my own views.


    All the same, I don’t get a choice in that funding, and you don’t get one with this funding.  Should either of us feel strongly enough about it, or that we are that much in the right about it, we do always have the option of choosing a place to live we feel better respresents us orrefusing to pay our taxes on these grounds and being willing to accept the consequences of doing so.

  • invalid-0

    I realize that my view is not the only one and that my veiws may not represent the counrty as a whole. But voicing my opinion is my right and thats all i was doing. Our tax money will be spent regardless of what i think and i accept the good with the bad. Because like the issue with you and spending money on the military it might not effect you personally but it effects me because im a marine about to go to afghanistan. But likewise the abortion issue might not effect me personally but will effect someone else. We both have strong feelings for both issues i guess thats why this counrty is the way it is

  • http://espu-ca.org/wp/ invalid-0

    What I find most interesting is that some women who support pro choice and have therefore opposed this gag order because it has effected women’s reproductive sexual health to the detriment can be the same women who advocate for the continued use of this same gag order that ties funding of condoms to barring NGO’s from speaking about prostitution rights in delivering HIV prevention services.

    I’m thinking about specifically of Gloria Steinem.

  • invalid-0

    …that’s the real problem isn’t it? People not liking where their money is going. Some don’t like farm subsidies partly because they’re not farmers. Others don’t like their money going toward transportation projects partly because they’re pretty much homebound and won’t do anything outside of the house. Others feel anyone who works for the government should be paid less than people on welfare (truth be told: I work for the state and earn less than 30k a year, but I also do enough physical labor each day that I come home several pounds lighter than when I left for work). I daresay many men don’t want abortions because they can’t get one – “pregnant man” notwithstanding.
    Let’s start with Anon, who feels insecure enough about something (spelling?) to keep ID a secret: as a Godfearing whateveryouare taxpayer, YOU DON’T KNOW HOW ABORTION HAS AFFECTED YOU! I’ll give you a clue: even those who’ve had abortions don’t know how abortion has affected them. In this life, only God (should She exist) would know.
    With the tens of millions of legal abortions performed in this country, along with many more done elsewhere and before the Roe decision, we have had our futures changed. The Religious Right would have you believe all our cancer cures and prospects for world peace went out the suction hose: I offer another perspective, young Anon. It is probable that someone you know has had an abortion, but like so many who have, never bothered to tell you or anyone else. Maybe it was a neighbor, who didn’t have the kid who’d beat the crap out of you at school every day. Maybe it was a blood relative whose sunny disposition you enjoy at family gatherings would not be so sunny having to feed another mouth you never saw. Maybe it was somebody you’ve never seen, who never gave birth to someone who eventually would drift to your side of the world, feeding a drug-fueled rage against society with ill-gotten gains resulting from home invasions in your neighborhood.
    OK, you’re about to go into Afghanistan. You may have to actually fire your weapon in defense of our country, you may even have to call for artillery or an air strike because your position’s about to fall. You do know your enemy fights dirty, using civilians as human shields whenever he can. To stay alive, you may have to kill them all: DO IT! Don’t worry about what the taxpayers will think, just come home safe, but don’t tell our women they can’t use your tax money to assist them in getting abortions because each one is a victory in the war on poverty. We wouldn’t need to spend so much on the poor if there were fewer of them.
    Life is still pretty much a random act, so if you see a female entering what you know to be an abortion clinic, have the compassion to at least think “there but for the grace of God go I.” I think that about all our servicemen and women, whose military training must sometimes trump “thou shalt not kill,” if they are to make it home alive.

    On a side note, gagging anybody should be reserved for unabashedly consenting adults: nobody should deny information to anyone else in situations where government funding is involved: what do we have to hide?