Under the glow of a cell phone flashlight, I watched as the clinician inserted the last intrauterine device. It was past 8 p.m., and as night stretched out before us, I reflected on a ten-plus-hour day spent helping well over 100 women who had waited all day to get an IUD, birth control, or gynecological services at a rural village health center.
It was July 2015, and I was in Nigeria for three weeks (and Kenya for one week) as part of the Planned Parenthood Global Youth Ambassador Fellowship Program to witness some of Planned Parenthood Global’s work expanding sexual and reproductive health services in communities. Demand for these services—and a clinic staff dedicated to delivering them—was clear. These women, many of them with their children, had traveled some distance to spend hours waiting for sexual and reproductive health care. To provide care to everyone present, the clinicians skipped their lunches.
Throughout my trip, I found myself thinking about how this care could just disappear should a future Republican president decide to once again impose the global “gag rule.” We need Congress to act and permanently repeal this policy so that young people worldwide don’t face the unease and whiplash that occurs when a president who opposes reproductive rights is elected.
The global gag rule, sometimes called the Mexico City policy, prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from the United States from offering information, referrals, or services related to legal abortion—even with non-U.S. money. It is traditionally reinstated by Republican presidents and rescinded by Democratic ones. But that political seesawing means the United States can’t provide our partners working on global health programs with the stability and security they need to make progress on their sexual and reproductive health goals.
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Congress can take action right now by passing the government funding bills for fiscal year 2022, which contain a provision that will repeal the global gag rule permanently. Right now, the federal government is set to run out of funding on February 18. Passing these spending bills would keep the government open until the end of September. Yes, Congress is notorious for ignoring its own deadlines, but delaying action has consequences—including that young people across the world won’t have certainty about their ability to access essential reproductive health care or to receive comprehensive sex education, including information about safe, legal abortion.
Many of the global health programs the United States supports span presidential administrations. Yet the ability to carry out these programs is in constant jeopardy so long as the global gag rule exists. In Kenya, for instance, more than 40,000 adolescent girls and young women were unable to obtain information on family planning when one organization was forced to close about a quarter of its programs as a result of the global gag rule. The policy’s continued existence disproportionately affects those who already face systemic barriers to health care—like young people.
As someone who works with young people, I know that they have specific and individual sexual and reproductive health-care needs. That relationship must be built on trust and expertise from health-care providers. That’s not something that can be created overnight, or just flipped on and off when control of the White House changes political parties.
While President Biden rescinded the global gag rule during his first week in office, congressional action to repeal it permanently would remove the looming threat of its return. Doing so would be a monumental win for young people and communities across the world. The idea is also popular: Seventy percent of Americans support ending the global gag rule, and permanent repeal is supported by more than 150 U.S. organizations working on health, human rights, and gender equality—as well as over 200 global organizations spanning 88 countries across six continents.
In Congress, the funding legislation that includes this provision has already passed the House of Representatives. What’s more, a bipartisan majority of senators are also in favor of permanently repealing the global gag rule. It’s time for Congress to finish its business by passing the final funding bills accomplish this goal, giving young people like the ones I met in Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere access to comprehensive sex ed, reproductive health care, and information about their reproductive options—regardless of who is in the White House.