Commentator Jennifer Pozner

(WOMENSENEWS)–Last week, the House failed to overturn the “global gag rule,” George Bush’s executive order that attempts to restrict the worldwide free flow of information about women’s reproductive health options. The failed vote on the Global Democracy Promotion Act was not only a blow to women’s health in developing nations, but also to the U.S. commitment to free speech abroad.

President Bush celebrated his first working day in office by reinstating the Reagan-era “global gag rule.” That policy bans U.S. family planning aid to foreign organizations that use their own, non-U.S. funds to provide abortions, discuss abortion as a medical option, lobby their own governments for abortion reforms or even conduct “public information campaigns” about the procedure. Since 1973, a separate law has barred these organizations from using U.S. funds for abortion-related activities.

For more than 30 years, American reproductive rights supporters and opponents have utilized every available forum, including media, lobbying, legal reform efforts and public education, to advocate their points of view.

Yet these activities, constitutionally protected at home, are once-again forbidden to overseas nongovernmental organizations that rely on U.S. population funds to provide contraceptive programs, maternal care, AIDS and sexually transmitted disease prevention and other crucial services–even in countries where abortion is legal.

Crackdowns on free speech by totalitarian governments generally garner condemnations in the American press. But in reporting the gag rule our news media generally overlooked the policy’s implications for international free speech and association. Instead, they preferred to run front-page stories examining how imposition of the ban might affect Bush’s image as a “uniter, not a divider.”

While covering the political costs and benefits for President Bush, news outlets from The New York Times to the Washington Post did not explore an aspect of the gag rule story that would have been in their self-interest: the toll it has taken on journalism here and abroad.

Gag Rule Bans ‘Public Information Campaigns’ on Abortion

The gag rule makes it taboo for any U.S.-aid recipient to “actively promote” abortion via “public information campaigns.” While speaking to the press is not specifically prohibited under the policy, regulations are only vaguely defined, making media a gray area that may be too risky for foreign nongovernmental organizations to wade through.

Who is to say what activities constitute a “public information campaign”? Developing a series of pro-abortion ads would seem to be off-limits, but how about speaking to a journalist regarding health problems associated with unwanted pregnancies or providing reporters with research on women incarcerated for abortion in countries where it is illegal?

The fear associated with abortion-related censorship cannot be underestimated. Last fall, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy invited Susana Galdos Silva, director of ReproSalud, a health and empowerment program for low-income Peruvian women, to speak to Washington, D.C., policy makers and media about the gag rule’s impact in her country.

She discussed at length her frustration at the rule’s impingement on free speech, but when American reporters and government officials asked Silva if the gag rule has negative health effects in Peru, she put her hand over her mouth and said, “‘I’m sorry, I’d like to tell you many stories about women dying from unsafe abortions in my country, and how we might change that. But I can’t, because your government has gagged me,'” recalls Julia Ernst, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

In February, the Center again hosted Silva at a press conference in New York, where she described the gag rule as paternalistic, censorious and anti-democratic. “My country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the region. I cannot even discuss this with legislators in my country due to the global gag rule,” Silva explained.

“This kind of debate, and the internal political process in our country, should not be subjected to restrictions about what we can say. The global gag rule limits our ability to talk about a severe public health problem. We have a right to find our own way to deal with these problems,” she said, echoing the objections of family planning providers worldwide.

Abortion Legal in Zimbabwe, Yet Family Planners Scared to Discuss It

In Zimbabwe, where abortion is only permitted if birth would pose a severe risk to the mother’s health (and even then, it is prohibitively expensive), the director of a family planning organization that receives U.S. population funds said privately that he was troubled by the health ramifications of illegal abortion in his country.

He told Maryse Fontus of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy that a high number of health problems and deaths are associated with unsafe, illegal abortions in his country, especially among adolescents. He also told her that due to the gag rule, his organization felt unable to provide or discuss abortion even in circumstances where it would be legal.

But when interviewed later by the Zimbabwe Standard, he said his organization did not support the idea of liberalizing abortion laws. In light of their earlier conversation, Fontus believes that this health worker might have held back his true views from the Standard for fear of losing U.S. aid if he stated his concerns on the record.

“It seems pretty clear to me that he did not feel free to discuss the issue with the reporter,” Fontus said.

The pressure Peruvian and Zimbabwean family planners feel to censor themselves when talking to the press may now be felt by U.S. aid recipients throughout the world. The gag rule may effectively prevent critical open discussion of how abortion laws affect women’s health and survival.

It muzzles family planners who serve impoverished women with bodies too malnourished to support a pregnancy to term, doctors who see women bloodied or dead from illegal abortions and activists familiar with the stories of rape victims incarcerated for seeking abortions.

By discouraging expert sources from speaking to the press, the gag rule has the potential to seriously compromise the ability of national and international media to accurately and comprehensively report about abortion and reproductive health issues.

Uncritical Reporting May Have Thwarted Efforts to Repeal Gag Rule

To the contrary of all impressions, Bush’s first act of office wasn’t a done deal. On Feb. 15, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced the Global Democracy Promotion Act, an effort to prevent the United States from denying family planning funds to nongovernmental organizations using their own money to provide or discuss abortion.

But the press didn’t pay much attention: According to a search of major newspapers in the database, the Global Democracy Promotion Act was mentioned only seven times between Feb. 15 and May 15. In the face of this relative media silence–which came on the heels of generally uncritical news coverage of the gag rule in initial front-page reports–is it any surprise that, by May 16, anti-family planning politicians killed the measure in the House of Representatives?

In order to repeal a presidential order, legislative opponents must gather the kind of major public support that can only come from a well-informed and vocal public. But the front pages failed to explain exactly what was at stake with the passage of the gag rule, giving the public no idea how broad the policy’s impact will be on the health and free speech rights of women from Albania to Zimbabwe. Some 78,000 of these women die annually from unsafe abortions.

Had news outlets reported in a meaningful manner about the gag rule’s potential to drive up maternal mortality, unintended pregnancy and HIV and other sexually transmitted disease transmission rates, people would have had the information they needed to decide how to feel about the rule. It is likely that a significant portion of the public would have been outraged, given that the majority of Americans declare themselves pro-choice and pro-family planning in poll after poll.

Likewise, if media had focused sustained, critical attention to the Global Democracy Promotion Act, the general public–and not just well-informed activists–might have written the letters, sent the faxes and made the phone calls to their representatives at the rates needed to sway the close call vote in the House.

It is not the media’s job to turn citizens into activists, but to provide them with the information they need to form their opinions on pressing social and political issues. If media had critically and substantively reported the wide-ranging implications of the global gag rule and congressional attempts to reverse it, we might have seen quite a different outcome.

Jennifer L. Pozner is Women’s Desk director for the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, [email protected]

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