Adrienne Germain

(WOMENSENEWS)–Abortion politics and U.S. foreign assistance policy have been bound to one another since the Supreme Court legalized abortion with Roe v. Wade. Shortly after the 1973 ruling, first-term Sen. Jesse Helms introduced an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, prohibiting U.S. foreign aid "for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning."

Since then, foreign assistance forreproductive health has become a political football. Organizations that depend on U.S. aid must alter strategies and services according to shifts in U.S. politics. Despite the affects on reproductive health programs overseas, organizations that depend on U.S. aid hesitate to condemn the policies for fear of losing their funding.

"Please understand that, as recipients of U.S. government money, we will not comment on U.S. policies," wrote the executive director of Profamilia Colombia, one of the largest family planning organizations in Colombia and at one time an ardent critic of that country’s strict abortion ban.

The United States provides more than half of Profamilia’s annual budget. In Colombia, clandestine abortion is the second leading cause of maternal mortality, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights (formerly the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy).

The so-called Mexico City policy provides a vivid example of politics influencing policy. Known as the "global gag rule," it bars foreign organizations that are recipients of U.S. health funds from providing abortion services, counseling or advocacy, even if they use non-U.S. revenue for those activities.

President Reagan introduced the policy in 1984 during a U.N. population conference in Mexico City. It remained in effect as long as Republicans held the White House. During his first week in office in 1993, President Clinton marked the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade by reversing it.

Exactly eight years later, President George W. Bush reinstated the policy on his second day in office. The decision signaled yet another turnabout in U.S. stance on family planning.

Global Gag Rule Was First Item on Anti-Choice Agenda

Since taking office, Bush has withdrawn $34 million in congressionally allotted aid to the United Nations Population Fund, frozen $3 million for the World Health Organization’s reproductive health program, and used U.N. conferences to push a pro-life agenda.

With domestic polls showing support for choice near 60 percent, including those who favor some limits, the policies are a low-risk political gambit that asserts the convictions of a powerful minority, according to pro-choice advocates. Anti-choice groups believe the actions reflect the President’s deeply held beliefs.

Regardless of the motive, the policies paid dividends in far-right votes for the GOP in November’s elections and, advocates say, since the changes do not affect U.S. women, the policies cost Republicans little by way of moderate support.

Dr. Steven Sinding

"It is intended to satisfy a domestic constituency," said Dr. Steven Sinding, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. "It is delivery on commitments that the Bush administration has made to the religious right."

In a recent example of the administration’s global abortion politics, at a U.N.-sponsored population conference in Bangkok in December, Gene Dewey of the U.S. Department of State announced that, "the United States supports the sanctity of life from conception to natural death."

U.S. delegates to the conference went on to object to the phrases "reproductive rights" and "reproductive health services" as possibly promoting abortion. They also objected to using the word "unsafe" before abortion, said a State Department official, because "unsafe" was often equated with "illegal." Those familiar with the negotiations claim that the U.S. rationale was that no abortion was safe for the fetus.

"It closely parallels the kind of language the Vatican uses on these kinds of issues," said Susan Cohen, deputy director for government affairs with The Alan Guttmacher Institute. John Klink, formerly of the Vatican delegation, joined the U.S. team in Bangkok.

Twice in Bangkok, the United States pushed its proposals to a vote. Twice, it cast the sole vote in favor. U.S. officials complained that the media portrayed the delegation as rolling back women’s rights. The delegation pressed a vote because of uncompromising resistance to all U.S. proposals, the State Department official said.

Anti-Choice Policies Cause Agencies to Cut Budgets by More than Half

Reproductive health advocates say the administration’s policies are behind the times.

"The world has changed a lot in 30 years and foreign assistance should change to reflect that," said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, noting U.S. isolation at Bangkok.

While it is impossible to quantify the effects of U.S. policy, abortion has not been the only casualty. International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that it serves more than 20 million couples each year. It lost approximately $20 million in cash and supplies–more than 20 percent of its budget–when it refused to sign the Mexico City policy.

"That in turn translates to clinics closed, contraceptives not available and women, in particular, and men denied services," Sinding said. "If an organization is involved in AIDS prevention activities and they are denied U.S. funding, that affects their AIDS prevention programs as well as their family planning."

For example, the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia forfeited 60 percent of its annual budget as a result of the Mexico City policy, forcing cuts in contraceptive distribution and reproductive health outreach programs, according to Wendy Turnbull of Population Action International. The Washington-based group has sent representatives to several countries to ascertain the policy’s effect on services.

In Ethiopia, abortions are only permitted on grounds of danger to the health of the mother. The country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and more than 4 million of its citizens are infected with HIV, according to the World Health Organization.

"The primary casualty of this program is contraceptive services and the probable result of that is an increase in unwanted pregnancies," Sinding said.

"There is a clear and direct relationship between women’s ability to control their fertility and their ability to escape poverty," he said. "The most ironic thing about the global gag rule is that it exacerbates the exact conditions that it purports to be designed to prevent– i.e. unsafe abortion."

Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York City. 

For more information:

U.S. Agency for International Development–
Population: Saving Lives, Protecting Health:

International Women’s Health Coalition:

Population Action International–
"U.S. Stance Roundly Rejected by Delegations to Bangkok
Population Conference":