By Sarah Stewart Taylor
Tuesday, January 23, 2001
On his first full work day--the anniversary of Roe. v. Wade that legalized abortions for U.S. women--President Bush re-imposed the global gag rule that cuts funds to international organizations if they so much as discuss abortion.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Pro-choice forces nationwide, including many Republican women, expressed outrage Monday that President George W. Bush re-imposed the global gag rule banning international organizations that receive U.S. funds from discussing abortion or even using their own money to educate women about their choices or lobby for legal reform.
"This restriction on foreign aid is unconscionable in a democracy. It's bad politics and bad policy," said Susan Cullman, co-chair of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. "In America, restricting free speech is unlawful, yet we are exporting this undemocratic value. This step is hypocritical, disrespectful and dangerous to women and their reproductive health needs."
She and others reacted bitterly to news that Bush reinstated what is known as the Mexico City Policy--severely curtailing speech about abortions overseas if organizations are to receive any of the $425 million in U.S. funds for family planning services. It was Bush's first full working day, the third since he was sworn in on Saturday.
The news came on the day that thousands of marchers, both pro-choice and anti-abortion, descended on Washington for the 28th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in 1973.
Every year, nearly 600,000 women around the world die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, according to the World Health Organization. Most of those deaths are preventable through education, family planning, neonatal care and abortion services. Most of those deaths occur in developing countries.
Pro-choice forces, already dismayed at the nomination of anti-choice John Ashcroft as attorney general, were further discouraged that the Bush administration appears ready to review the Food and Drug Administration's recent approval of RU-486, mifepristone, the medical alternative to surgical abortion.
In an executive order, Bush said: "It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or to advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad. ... I direct the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to reinstate in full all of the requirements of the Mexico City Policy in effect on January 19, 1993."
That was when President Bill Clinton lifted the severe restrictions on discussing or advocating abortion that were part of the Mexico City Policy, named after the Mexican capital where President Reagan announced the policy at a population conference.
"Thousands of women will die each year from illegal abortion because President Bush, who lost the popular vote, needs to curry favor with the religious right," said Janet Benschoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. "It is a malicious affront to women to gag advocates for their health on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade."
Noted feminist Gloria Steinem, president of Voters for Choice, said, "Bush took off the mask of 'Compassionate Conservatism' today when he condemned millions of women in the world to injury and death by withdrawing U.S. aid funds from countries where safe and legal abortion is part of family planning."
The Mexico City Policy prevents U.S. funds from going to international family planning organizations, even those that use their own, separate monies to provide abortion services or counseling, or lobby governments on abortion issues. Under current law, U.S. funds cannot be used to provide abortion services abroad, but the gag rule curtails speech about abortion in other countries as well as what actions foreign organizations can take without jeopardizing a source of funds for such projects as digging wells in deserts.
The global gag rule was vetoed by President Clinton soon after he took office in 1993, but it has reappeared in various forms over the past few years as the White House has been forced to compromise with powerful anti-choice congressional Republicans. Last fall, Congress approved a bill increasing international foreign aid for reproductive health services to $425 million, with the provision that the incoming president would ultimately decide whether the rule would be reinstated.
Some reproductive rights advocates said the swift decision--only two days after Bush was sworn in--took them by surprise. Many were planning lobbying campaigns and were in the process of writing letters to newspapers or the Bush administration opposing the expected new executive order when the announcement was made.
New First Spouse Laura Bush recently told NBC that she does not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Bush himself has said he opposes legal abortion but doesn't think the country is ready for a pro-life amendment to the Constitution.
Pro-choice organizations reacted to the announcement yesterday with a flurry of angry statements.
Lynn Grefe, national director of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, said pro-choice Republicans across the country will be outraged by the executive order.
"This handcuffs family planning organizations around the world and puts a lock on the health and lives of women," Grefe said. "We were hoping for a new tone of Republican respect for reproductive health. This first step, linking critical funds to silence on critical issues, is a misstep, and it is women who will take the fall."
Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, a Washington-based abortion rights organization, said Bush is "using his presidential powers quite aggressively already to undermine a woman's right to choose and clear a pathway to the overturning of Roe v. Wade."
Pro-choice advocates said the announced intention to re-impose the gag rule is part of a disturbing message already being signaled by the new administration. Supporters of a woman's right to choose say the nomination of the adamantly anti-choice John Ashcroft as Bush's attorney general indicates that Bush is not interested in consensus, moderation or compassion.
The Bush administration has also signaled that it may seek to reverse Food and Drug Administration approval of the drug RU-486, an alternative to surgical abortion. During his Senate confirmation hearings for health and human services chief, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson made his anti-choice sentiments clear and questioned whether the widely tested drug is safe.
Pro-choice organizations said they would be lobbying the Bush administration to reverse the decision. "We will be letting them know that we will be keeping up the drumbeat until this is revoked," said Julia Ernst, international legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.
Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance journalist covering Washington, D.C., and New England.
Read the update of Caryl Rivers' Jan. 11 commentary in light of President Bush's statements on his intention to reinstate the global gag rule: http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=413&context=archive
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