U.S. Republicans Take Culture War Abroad with Global Gag Rule

A mother and child in a health center in Africa. (via Creative Commons / Flickr user Novartis AG)

Beyond the recent onslaught of attacks on Planned Parenthood by members of America’s conservative party, an even larger threat to the right to reproductive services, one that could impact millions of women in the world’s poorest nations, looms as House Republicans work to reinstate a global gag order on family counseling services.

The Global Gag Rule was rescinded under President Barack Obama in 2009. Last week, however, a far stricter version of the Rule was passed overwhelmingly by Republican congressmen. Under that rule, all U.S. financial assistance to international health organizations counseling women on family planning options—abortion in particular, can be blocked. Such assistance includes funding for HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation, and child education.

Ranking House Member Nita Lowey (D-NY) said the Gag Rule "muzzles doctors and nurses throughout the world." She added, "...that means an expectant mother who has walked six hours while bleeding to reach the only health clinic in the region may not get the life-saving care she needs - or even a referral."

As critical funding for preventative health care hangs in the balance for millions of women, President Obama finds himself in a national cultural war debate that now has international implications thanks to conservative lawmakers.

Originally referred to as the Mexico City Policy, the 1984 Ronald Reagan-issued executive order, was used as a political flashpoint, polarizing Republicans against Democrats in what could be seen as one of the first firing shots of a culture war that would continue to plague U.S. domestic policy for decades.

A question left out of the abortion debate remains: is it really necessary to take domestic cultural disputes global?

According to a recent global survey on abortion, published by the Guttmacher Institute, a large percentage of safe, lawful abortions take place in China and India. If China and India are removed from the analysis, 86% of women of childbearing age in the remaining developing nations face highly restrictive abortion laws. And by “restrictive” they mean to say that abortion is only permitted to save a woman’s life, to protect her physical or mental health, or in cases of rape, incest, or fetal impairment.

In addition, the U.S. push to curtail abortion procedures seems entirely unwarranted when looking at the statistics, which suggest a steady decline in abortion rates in those same developing nations. Guttmacher estimates that the global number of safe abortions fell from 25.6 million in 1995 to 21.9 million in 2003. The organization also found that unsafe procedures have changed very little, from 19.9 million in 1995, to 19.7 million in 2003--a mere 1%. These unsafe abortions were performed either by unskilled practitioners in unhygienic conditions, or they were self-induced. The worldwide data thus concludes that the rate of unsafe abortion is trailing behind the rate of safe abortion procedures.

As the studies clearly show, unsafe, potentially life-threatening abortions will continue and are continuing at a steady rate.

Shouldn’t Americans be asking their legislators why, then, is the Republican majority fighting to silence medical practitioners in these developing nations? Why gag the very people who could save women’s lives?