Global Gag Rule Just the First Step: The US International Abortion Funding Ban

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Global Gag Rule Just the First Step: The US International Abortion Funding Ban

Patty Skuster

The impact of repealing the global gag rule will be significant. But repealing the gag rule will not end the longstanding ban on foreign aid for safe abortion care.

After eight years of a policy that
denied funding for crucial health services, stifled democratic debate,
contributed to deaths from unsafe abortion, and stood in the way of
global progress toward access to safe abortion, the Global Gag Rule
should soon be history.  The impact will be certainly be significant –
clinics refunded, organizations again able to speak out on abortion
issues. But repealing the Gag Rule will not actually end the
longstanding ban on foreign aid for safe abortion care. 

The ban on foreign aid for abortion
is based on the government’s interpretation of the Helms Amendment,
adopted in 1973.  The Helms Amendment states "No foreign assistance
funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method
of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions."   

The language of the ban is as peculiar
as its implementation.  One might wonder, under what circumstances
is abortion used as a "method of family planning?"  Abortion
certainly isn’t family planning when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s
physical or mental health or where the woman is a victim of sexual violence. 
Under Helms, could USAID have a role in ensuring women’s access to
safe, legal abortion under these circumstances? 

In countries where abortion is legal
under a broad set of conditions, the ban has meant that no U.S. assistance
can help the government make services safer (for example, through training
or equipment), or indeed to make safe abortion care available at all.
In Nepal, where the government is working to implement the 2002 abortion
law, USAID-funded training facilities and clinics dedicated to treating
complications of unsafe abortion may not be used for safe abortion care.
The government instead had to build new facilities or compromise quality
of care by using less appropriate facilities. 

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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U.S. administrations have applied
the Helms language to effectively prohibit any use of foreign assistance
funds for safe abortion care, but also to prevent dissemination of information
about abortion or the purchase of equipment to treat abortion complications. 
The prohibitions are applied equally to non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), foreign governments and multi-lateral organizations (by contrast,
the global gag rule only applies to NGOs and dictates what they do with
their own, non-USAID funding, while Helms applies only to US funding).

This includes the purchase and distribution of manual vacuum aspiration instruments,
life-saving equipment that can be used to both provide safe induced
abortion as well as to treat complications from unsafe abortion and
miscarriage, particularly in low-resource settings.  Though USAID
funds train providers to treat complications from unsafe abortion, funding
for the equipment to put this training into practice must be acquired

The Helms Amendment has even led
to the control of information about the scientific, public health, and
human rights aspects of abortion – far beyond any reasonable interpretation
of the language of the law.  USAID-funded journals and databases
have been censored systematically and through outlandish intrusions. 
In April 2008, administrators of the U.S.-funded Popline database made the word abortion an unsearchable
stop word, all because of a phone conversation over USAID’s concerns
that Popline may be violating
the abortion ban
including what they thought were abortion advocacy materials. 
The items in question were articles in A:
the abortion magazine
published by Ipas, in an issue on the growing recognition of the linkages
between abortion and human rights. Abortion was shortly reinstated as
a search term but the offending articles remain banned from the "world’s
largest bibliographic database" on reproductive health literature.   

It does not have to be this way.
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. 

Only Congress can repeal the abortion
ban, although President-elect Obama certainly has signaled his opposition
to bans on public funds for safe abortion care.  The wording of
the Helms Amendment does give the next president the opportunity to
request USAID to issue guidance on what activities are permissible under the Helms Amendment.  Such activities would include
but are not limited to: creating awareness of unsafe abortion
as a public health problem, equipping providers with appropriate technology,
training providers to provide legal abortion under certain circumstances
and providing abortion information, counseling, and referrals. 

Millions of women have died of unsafe
abortions in the 35 years since the Helms Amendment was enacted, and
tens of millions more have suffered injuries and disabilities due to
complications. The end of the Global Gag Rule will begin a new era of
U.S. foreign policy that will improve women’s health and lives. 
But the Helms Amendment will remain a major impediment to efforts by
governments, advocates and organizations to ensure that the world’s
poorest do not have to face unsafe abortion.   Even with Helms
in place, through new and clarifying guidance, the administration can
lessen its harm, comply with U.S. international commitments, and save
lives of the world’s poorest women.