What Is the Global Gag Rule?

What is the global gag rule?

The global gag rule prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who receive U.S. global health assistance from providing legal abortion services or referrals, while also barring advocacy for abortion law reform, even if it’s done with the NGO’s own, non-U.S. funds. The policy allows for exemptions in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

President Ronald Reagan first enacted the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, in 1984. Every president since Reagan has decided whether to enact or revoke the policy, making NGO funding vulnerable to political changes happening in the United States. When enacted, the global gag rule forces organizations to make the impossible choice of whether they will stay true to their mission to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare, education, and advocacy, though without the significant source of funding the United States provides—or whether they will comply with the policy in order to continue accepting U.S. funds.

In 2017, President Donald Trump’s Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy took the global gag rule further and applied it to all $8.8 billion of U.S. global health funding, which includes HIV and AIDS funding, health systems strengthening, and even water, sanitation, and hygiene programming.

Who does the global gag rule impact?

  • Women will suffer from disruptions in reproductive health services, more unintended pregnancies, higher rates of maternal mortality, and an increase in unsafe abortions. Multiple studies have shown that the global gag rule has not decreased rates of abortions overall—but it has increased the number of unsafe abortions.
  • Global HIV prevention efforts are heavily supported by the U.S. government and impacted by President Trump’s expanded global gag rule. Even when the policy was limited to family planning funding, it led to reduced availability of HIV treatment and prevention programming. The United States provides nearly 50 percent of the world’s HIV and AIDS funding, which means Trump’s policy will have an incredibly damaging impact on the quality and availability of HIV services on a global scale and in many countries will undo years of work to integrate sexual and reproductive health services with HIV services.
  • Marginalized groups such as LGBTI communities or sex workers will lose access to critical health services, including clinic and outreach programs. When organizations reject U.S. funds, they often have to reduce the scale of their programs—years of work to earn the trust of marginalized communities are also lost when clinics close. Often, there are no other existing programs to replace the services.
  • NGOs who are already suffering from significant funding shortages due to their decision to continue to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare will struggle even more to help those in need.
  • Movements will lose momentum due to the chilling effect the global gag rule has on advocacy. The policy discourages collaboration between groups that are gagged and groups that are not, and it prevents gagged groups from participating in movements to reform restrictive abortion laws or address other crosscutting human rights concerns—such as LGBTI and sex worker rights, gender-based violence prevention, and HIV criminalization.

Does the global gag rule create more unsafe abortions?

Yes. Past iterations of the global gag rule have shown that the policy does not reduce the number of abortions, and it has led to an increase in unsafe abortions and negative impacts on maternal, newborn, and child health.

Is access to a safe, legal abortion a human right?

Yes. People have a human right to be free from gender-based discrimination. Denying access to safe abortions is gender discrimination because it denies equal access to health care and good health. People seeking reproductive care also have a right to autonomy and self-determination, which means they have a right to decide what to do with their own bodies.

In the past few years, several UN agencies and experts have gone on the record about the right to a safe, legal abortion. Many UN agencies have called on state governments to remove barriers to abortion services. In 2017, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning abuse and discrimination of women, which included language about access to safe abortions when permitted by law.

How do the Open Society Foundations support sexual health and reproductive rights?

The Open Society Foundations support organizations and individuals around the world who are advocating for these rights. Organizations working on sexual and reproductive rights—including the right to safe, legal abortions—and receiving the Open Society Foundations’ support including the following:

  • The International Women’s Health Coalition has worked with partners in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa to document the impact of the global gag rule and also collaborates with other Washington, D.C.-based organizations to advocate for the repeal of the global gag rule.
  • Ulukman Dayrger in the Kyrgyz Republic uses a peer educator model to engage in sexual and reproductive health outreach and education with sex workers. They provide PAP smears, free testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and referrals to other health services.
  • The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) advances a human-rights based approach to U.S. foreign policy with a focus on sexual health and reproductive rights. Since the reinstitution of the global gag rule, CHANGE has led Washington, D.C.-based efforts to mitigate the harms of the policy by coordinating documentation efforts and developing legal and policy approaches to tackle the global gag rule head on.