Poul Nielson

(WOMENSENEWS)–In new twist to the growing controversy over President Bush’s interference with the health care of women in other nations, the European Union and member states indicate that they may step in and substitute for the cuts in U.S. family planning aid.

President George W. Bush re-imposed the so-called global gag rule January 22 banning health agencies abroad that receive U.S. family planning funds from counseling women about abortion and lobbying for abortion law reform.

In response, Poul Nielson, European Commissioner for Development, Co-operation and Humanitarian Aid, during a recent World Bank conference in London, announced that indeed the European Union could find the funds to replace the U.S. aid and fill what he termed the “decency gap.” The European Commission is the executive body of the EU.

Nielson proposed to compensate for cuts in U.S. funding because he is concerned about women’s health, rights and reducing the number of abortions.

“He considers that counseling, informing about options, these are things that will lead to a reduction of the number of abortions, rather than increase the number of abortions,” said Kristian Schmidt, a member of Nielson’s cabinet. Commissioner Nielson thinks abortion is a thing to avoid, but you don’t avoid it by forcing organizations working in the field to not inform their patients about it.

In addition two EU member states, Denmark and the Netherlands, declared publicly that they were also willing to contribute funds.

The exact amount of the shortfall is not yet known. Congress set aside $425 million to give to international family planning groups. The U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet determined which clinics and agencies will reject that funding.

Exactly how the Europeans would make up the shortfall remains unclear. The Swedish government, which currently holds the rotating, six-month presidency of the European Union, is now assessing the consequences of Bush’s decision in order to determine the course of action, said Bjorn Andersson, desk officer at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm.

Even though the European Commission, Denmark and the Netherlands would favor a coordinated response by the 15 member states, actions by individual countries might be another option, said Michael Curtis, spokesman for Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Aid at the European Commission in Brussels.

Europe’s Response Still in Planning Stages

The European Commission is already funding family planning projects abroad, and Nielson could decide to increase these funds, Curtis said in a telephone interview. However, the commission itself probably wouldn’t be able to fill the whole gap, partly because of the large amount needed and because it is only allowed to finance projects.

“We are not allowed to give grants or subsidies to the running costs of these [family-planning] organizations. So maybe, if that’s where they need money, the member states can finance running cost and the commission can finance projects. It’s just a hypothesis at this moment, but that’s one possibility,” Curtis said.

Family planning advocates in the United States and overseas applauded the Europeans’ decision.

The European position “will send out a clear moral message to the whole world that certain governments feel strongly about the vast unmet sexual and reproductive health needs in the world,” said Hannah Pandian, spokesperson for the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation, in a telephone interview. “I only hope that that moral message is taken seriously.”

The global gag rule is officially known as the Mexico City Policy. President Ronald Reagan initiated the policy at a population conference in Mexico City in 1984. It was rescinded by President Clinton in 1993.

Under this policy, in order for non-U.S. family planning organizations to receive family planning funds from the United States Agency for International Development, they must certify that they will not perform abortions, promote abortion services or lobby for change of their nation’s abortion laws, even with their own funds. Two other U.S. laws bar overseas agencies from using U.S. funds for performing abortions.

The agency did not return calls asking whether many groups were changing their policies and practices in order to return funds. Some have announced they might reject the funding altogether.

U.S. Has Banned All Funding for Overseas Abortions Since 1973

Funding for abortions has been banned since 1973 by Sen. Jesse Helms’ (R-N.C.) amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. Furthermore, in 1974 the U.S. Agency for International Development proscribed funding for “information, education, training or communication programs that seek to promote abortion as a method of family planning.”

Many U.S. lawmakers also are indignant about the gag rule, noting that Americans are free to counsel about abortion and legally lobby for abortion law reform but, they argue, people in developing countries are denied the same free speech rights because the funding is conditional upon their silence about abortion.

Last week, a bipartisan bill, the “Global Democracy Promotion Act,” was introduced in the U.S. Senate to reverse or repeal the global gag rule–further evidence of the opposition that the Bush’s decision has encountered. It will be introduced in the House next week.

Today, about 50 million women worldwide seek abortion every year, and 20 million of these abortions are unsafe, resulting in the deaths of approximately 78,000 women, according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation. About 600,000 women die every year from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth, 98 percent of them in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Advocates and European officials believe the global gag rule could actually increase the number of abortions worldwide – the opposite of the rule’s stated purpose. In his executive order, Bush said it is his “conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion either here or abroad.”

The White House did not return telephone calls about the European Union’s plans to provide substitute funding.

Cuts Mean Reduced Funds for Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care

Most family planning organizations try to reduce the number of abortions by offering contraception. So, in cutting funds to organizations that provide or promote abortion services, advocates argue, Bush’s decision in fact cuts family planning funds for the other reproductive health services offered by these organizations.

“If we cannot provide as much family planning as we do already, that automatically is going to result in more unwanted pregnancies which is often going to result in unsafe abortions, which goes directly against what we want to do, which is reduce the number of abortions,” said Pandian, the spokesperson for the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Some groups will accept the money with anti-abortion speech strings attached, but their number is not known.

Susan Cohen, assistant director for Policy Development at the Alan Guttmacher Institute in Washington, D.C. said that, if history is any indication, family planning clinics that counsel their patients about abortion will chose to accept U.S. funds in order to keep their doors open. But the trade-off is clear: They will have to keep their mouths shut about the possibility of terminating unwanted or hazardous pregnancies.

“The EU cannot help them with that because by virtue of the definition of the policy,” Cohen said, “once a non-governmental organization decides to accept the U.S funds, it cannot work with any European government or any other donor, who might want to replace the funding or continue the funding they may have had for their abortion-related work.”

Other organizations, like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, will refuse the funds. That could be as much as $8 million for 2001 to 2003, about 8 percent of their budget, according to its spokesperson Pandian.

“It will definitely affect the work that we do with young people and HIV/AIDS prevention and in insuring safe motherhood in many of the countries that we work with,” Pandian added.

U.S. groups opposing the global gag rule thanked Nielson in a letter originated by Catholics For A Free Choice and co-signed by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the American Medical Women’s Association, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Population Action International.

“Even though the Bush administration wants to take the world backward,” said Cohen from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, “the European Union is going to commit itself to follow through on the commitments that all the world’s countries made at the Cairo population conference in 1994 and at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995, to promote and protect women’s reproductive health around the world including in developing countries.”

Laurence Pantin is a writer in New York.

To read other Women’s Enews articles on the global gag rule, visit

Bush’s Order Called Bad Politics and Bad Policy https://womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=414&context=archive

Advocates Fear Bush To Reinstate Global Gag Rule https://womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=409&context=archive