Gloria Feldt

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights advocates are condemning President George W. Bush for using his promised AIDS relief package to expand the so-called global gag rule.

Calling the move the latest battle in the administration’s war against women, many groups are mounting a campaign to draw attention to what they say are the Bush administration’s plans to further restrict abortion rights.

Also, women’s right advocates were joined by a powerful ally last weekend. An editorial in The Washington Post scolded Bush for “sending out a confused message on its global AIDS initiative” and warned him against sacrificing any portion of the AIDS package on the altar of controversial abortion politics.

“The president’s emphasis in the State of the Union address on stemming the AIDS epidemic was a breakthrough,” The Washington Post editorial stated. “He should not risk eroding that progress . . . With his latest proposal, he risks letting domestic political considerations blur the focus on the emergency work at hand.”

In a briefing with reporters earlier this month, administration officials indicated Bush planned to extend the global gag rule to those eligible to receive funds from the $15 billion package he unveiled last month in his State of the Union address. The gag rule, often called the “Mexico City policy,” bars distribution of U.S. family planning funds to clinics in other countries that provide abortion or abortion counseling or lobby for change in abortion policies.

The Mexico City policy was announced two decades ago during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. President Bill Clinton lifted the controversial ban on his first day in office. Bush reinstated it just as quickly.

Administration officials told reporters that agencies offering abortion services might still receive AIDS package funds so long as they separated their family planning work from their AIDS work. They called that move a compromise. The new policy would get the most help to the most people because it would allow government officials to disseminate the AIDS money to a wide range of nongovernmental organizations, they said. Left unstated is the reality that the policy would enable the Bush administration to satisfy demands from anti-abortion allies that the White House bar any uses of U.S. funds for abortions.

AIDS Funds Have Been Without Strings

Women’s rights groups cried foul, however, calling Bush’s decision a “reckless” expansion of the gag rule. They note that AIDS funding has traditionally been channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development with no strings attached.

Women’s health organizations also criticized Bush for what they called a strategy to mislead the public by presenting his plan as the opposite of what it really is: an extension, rather than a relaxation, of the gag rule.

“The show horse of the president’s State of the Union Address has turned into a Trojan horse for global health,” said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The administration dubbed their plan a compromise. It is not. The only thing it compromises is women’s health.”

To prove their case, advocates point to a White House memo dated Feb. 11 from Assistant Secretary of State Gene Dewey to Secretary State Colin Powell that alludes to “plans to extend the Mexico City policy to cover all U.S. funding through [the Department of State] and USAID for ‘reproductive health’ programs.”

The move furthers the reach of the so-called global gag rule because it prevents clinics from treating AIDS-related illnesses and reproductive health in the same facility. The change would require family planning groups to create separate facilities for family planning and for HIV/AIDS programs in order to receive federal support.

“That’s not how many people get health care,” said Kirsten Sherk, spokeswoman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, noting that the new policy would be a difficult burden for cash-strapped clinics in poor and rural communities. Many, she said, would have to choose between AIDS clinics and family planning clinics.

The policy would pose particular problems for women, who would be forced to find and visit separate clinics in many areas where existing family planning centers may be the only health care of any kind for miles around. Moreover, pregnant women with AIDS–especially mothers–might also need to discuss reproductive health with the same doctor who treats AIDS, as childbirth often leaves AIDS patients with further weakened immune systems.

Moreover, standalone AIDS clinics would only add to the stigma attached to those with the disease and would likely prevent AIDS victims from visiting a labeled clinic, Planned Parenthood’s Sherk said.

Progressives around the country echoed Feldt’s sentiment that the effort is an attempt to undermine family planning clinics around the world.

“This is far from a good development,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. “This will not help fight AIDS. It will prevent more women and men from receiving health care.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:
“Bush Moves to Apply Global Gag Rule to AIDS Funding”:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America
“Bush Administration to Broaden Harmful Restrictions on International Health Programs”: