March 2, 2001


Global Gag Rule Hurts Women

By Selina Espinoza

As a woman whose job it is to improve reproductive rights and access to healthcare in Mexico, I have spent many years working with Mexican family planning organizations. These organizations provide women with the preventive healthcare they need to live healthy lives. They test their patients for cancer and sexually transmitted infections and provide them with contraceptives, vaccines, and prenatal care. One clinic that I work with vaccinates 6,000 children and pregnant women a year.

For many women, visits to these clinics are the only time they get to see a doctor. But the millions of women worldwide who rely on family planning organizations for their healthcare have just suffered a serious loss, one which could cost many their lives. On his first full day in office, President Bush reinstated the Mexico City policy, which refuses U.S. funding to international organizations that provide abortion or even discuss it with their clients. The policy is often referred to as the global gag rule because it "gags" doctors around the world from talking about abortion.

The Mexico City policy was first signed by President Reagan in 1984. President Clinton rescinded it when he took office in 1993. For the past eight years, international family planning organizations have been free to use their own money to counsel their patients about abortion, provide abortion, and lobby their governments to change abortion laws. Now the U.S. government is once again stepping between women and their healthcare providers.

Bush says the policy ensures that taxpayer funds are not used to pay for or promote abortions. But U.S. law already prohibits using taxpayer funds for abortions, and it has since 1973. The Mexico City policy applies to organizations that use their own money-not the money they receive from the U.S. —to talk about or provide abortion.

The policy applies regardless of the country's own abortion laws. In Mexico, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape and incest. Under the Mexico City policy, if a Mexican woman is raped and she goes to a U.S.-funded clinic for help, the clinic staff cannot tell her that abortion is legally an option for her. And since many of the women who visit these clinics have no other form of healthcare, she might be forced to carry a pregnancy that the law says she can`t terminate.

Sadly, the people who are hurt most by the Mexico City policy are not the family planning organizations themselves, but the women that they serve. Every year, more than half a million women die from pregnancy-related causes. With the gag rule in place, millions of women will be denied access to the healthcare services that could very well save their lives. Without access to contraception and preventive healthcare, women will be subject to more unintended pregnancies, more illegal abortions, and more dangerous births.

The Mexico City policy also prohibits organizations from advocating life-saving changes to their country's own abortion laws. Tens of thousands of women worldwide suffer injuries or die as a result of back-alley abortions each year. The clinic workers who see firsthand the damage that illegal abortions do to women are now helpless to lobby for safe, legal abortion practices. The United States does not have the right to tell a doctor that she cannot work for safer medical practices in her own country.

I now have to witness the organizations that I work with make an impossible choice: either forego desperately needed U.S. dollars, or sacrifice their ethical responsibilities to the women they serve. Since many of them are dependent on U.S. funding, they will likely give up their ability to provide legal health services, to inform their patients about health options, and to take part in important policy debates in their own country. Either choice endangers women's lives.

President Bush is doing a great injustice to the women of the world. The Mexico City policy would be illegal if it were applied in the United States, because it would violate our freedom of speech. The right to speak about anything, even if it is controversial, is a cherished and fundamental part of our Constitution. It is not fair to punish organizations in other countries for doing something that we value so highly in our own.

Selina Espinoza works with Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties internationally recognized binational program.

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