Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After a last-minute agreement with the Bush administration allowed her to speak openly about reproductive rights, a Peruvian activist testified before Congress Thursday that Bush’s global gag rule has had a chilling effect on family planning in her country–and could lead to more abortions, not fewer.

“In the face of serious problems such as these–sexual abuse, dangerous abortion practices and alarming rates of maternal mortality–how can the U.S. tell us that we must be silent?” Susana Galdos Silva asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She is co-founder of the Movimiento Manuela Ramos, a Peruvian nongovernmental women’s organization.

Galdos Silva testified that in Peru, where abortion is illegal, an estimated 60 percent of all pregnancies are unintended–and 30 percent of those pregnancies end in illegal abortion.

“History has taught us that, throughout the world, desperate women will seek abortion regardless of its legal status,” she said, adding that her organization must be silent about the need for abortion law reform “if we are to save the programs that thousands of women depend upon.”

On President George W. Bush’s first day in office, he reinstated the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, which prevents any foreign family planning organization that receives U.S. funds from providing abortion services, lobbying its government for abortion law reform or disseminating information about abortion–even using its own money. By extension, that means speaking publicly about abortion, even in sworn testimony before the U.S. Congress, could result in loss of U.S. family planning funds.

Since 1973, it has been illegal for these organizations to provide abortion services directly with U.S. money.

The policy is referred to as the global gag rule by news agencies and opponents. Those who object to the policy argue that it limits free speech and denies foreign women the protections and rights afforded to Americans who may speak openly for or against abortion in the United States.

Administration’s Global Gag Rule Limits Speech Overseas–Not in U.S.

Galdos Silva said she had been reluctant to testify at the hearing for fear her organization would forfeit its funding. But after the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy filed an injunction against the Bush administration in federal court in New York, White House officials agreed that she could speak without reprisal on this one occasion.

She still is barred from speaking before Peru’s legislature, the United Nations or to members of the media, according to Simon Heller, director of domestic programs at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

“Only when faced with the reality of the gag rule’s policy in practice–that an individual would be censored from speaking freely before Congress–was the Bush administration forced to concede that the gag rule is indefensible,” Heller said in a statement. “Americans should be free to work with foreign partners to reform abortion laws without interference by the U.S. government.”

At the hearing a State Department official denied that the administration had ever intended to deny Galdos Silva and others the right to speak openly in this country.

The hearing was convened to collect testimony on a proposed bill to overturn the global gag rule, introduced by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

Critics: Stifling Speech on Abortion Options, Law Reforms Costs Lives

Galdos Silva and other activists and health care providers told the committee that the policy prohibiting speech about abortion options and lobbying is endangering lives and forcing many nongovernmental organizations to make a terrible choice–either to keep advocating for abortion legalization and reform laws that will save lives or to retain much-needed American funding.

Sen. Boxer chaired the session at the request of Democratic chair Joe Biden of Delaware. Boxer usually chairs the Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism.

Boxer said the gag rule “will cause families and women increased misery and death.” She said she was amazed that Galdos Silva had to go to court to ensure her right to speak freely, “in this, the freest and the greatest country in the world.”

But Alan J. Kreczko, the acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s bureau of population, refugees and migration, testified: “The programs of foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide or actively promote abortion are not consistent with the family planning values President Bush wants to promote as part of his foreign policy agenda.”

Some of Boxer’s Senate and House colleagues weighed in, with Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. Russel Feingold, Democrat from Wisconsin, and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Republican from Rhode Island, saying they support Boxer’s bill to overturn the gag rule. Sen. George Allen, Republican from Virginia, said he opposes overturning the gag rule because he doesn’t think there is consensus among Americans on the issue of abortion rights.

Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada supported Boxer’s bill. Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey supported the gag rule.

Supporters Say Gag Rule Saves Lives, Doesn’t Increase Abortions

“President Bush’s decision ensures that our legacy to the world does not include systematic violence against unborn children,” Hutchinson testified. Both he and Smith said that while they understand that U.S. funds cannot be used directly to provide abortion services, they believe that organizations can play “accounting games,” in Hutchinson’s words. “We all know these funds are fungible,” he said, and, without explicit restrictions, could permit speech about abortion.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y.Lowey responded by saying the Mexico City Policy is hypocritical and unfair.

“Only pro-choice speech is prohibited,” she said. “The global gag rule says that only Americans should be entitled to the freedoms our Constitution provides. It undermines efforts to promote democracy in the developing world … and it does nothing to reduce abortion worldwide.”

The question of how the global gag rule affects abortion rates and maternal health was much debated during the hearing. Nicholas Eberstadt, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, testified that U.S. policy on abortion funding overseas seems to have no measurable effect on abortion rates.

Daniel Pellegrom, president of the family planning organization Pathfinder International, argued that if family planning organizations must curtail their activities because they lose U.S. funding, they won’t be able to provide men and women with desperately needed contraception that will prevent abortion.

Dr. Nirmal Bista, director general of the Family Planning Association of Nepal, offered a first-hand account of how the rule will affect women’s health. Because his organization says it cannot function ethically and productively under the global gag rule restrictions, it will have to give up almost $250,000 in U.S. family planning funds, he said. That means the organization will probably have to shut one or all of its reproductive health clinics in Kathmandu, Chitwan and Sunsari, where a range of reproductive health services are offered.

Galdos Silva said that she was pleased to be able to speak freely on this trip to the United States. On two other trips, she said, she was asked questions about her work in reproductive rights and had to decline to answer because she was afraid of losing her funding.

“The gag rule has taken away my freedom to speak about an important issue in my country, a serious issue that is about the life and death of women in Peru,” Silva said. “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.”

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.