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HEALTH: Obama Lifts "Global Gag Rule"

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jan 23 2009 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama Friday lifted an eight-year ban on U.S. funding for overseas family-planning groups and clinics that perform or promote abortion or lobby for its legalisation.

The move, which came in the form of an executive order, was the latest in a series of actions since his inauguration Tuesday to fulfill pledges he made during his presidential campaign, including his orders Wednesday to ban the use of coercive interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects and to close the Guantanamo detention facility within one year.

Friday's order marked a major reversal in U.S. population and reproductive-health policy under the administration of former President George W. Bush, who imposed the ban on abortion-related funding as one of his very first acts as president after his inauguration eight years ago.

Critics called the ban "the global gag rule" because of its restrictions on the right of groups receiving U.S. family-planning assistance to participate in public debate on abortion in their home countries.

Obama also publicly re-iterated his intention to resume U.S. funding for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) – another campaign promise.

"I look forward to working with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N. Population Fund. By resuming funding to UNFPA, the U.S. will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries," said Obama.


Public health and women's rights groups celebrated Obama's latest move, even as anti-abortion and Christian Right groups deplored it.

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid welcomed Obama’s decision to restore funding to UNFPA and noted, "how quickly he has addressed this issue. His actions send a strong message about his leadership and his desire to support causes that will promote peace and dignity, equality for women and girls, and economic development in the poorest regions of the world. And, access to reproductive health is at the core of all of these issues," she said.

"President Obama's immediate repeal of the Global Gag Rule signals a new era in U.S. leadership supporting health, safety and rights of women across the world," said Serra Sippel, director of the Centre for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) here.

"Many of the world's most underserved women will now have a greater chance to obtain much-needed family planning information and services, as well as safe and legal abortion services – all of which are critical in equipping women with the knowledge and tools to plan their pregnancies and lead healthy and productive lives," she noted.

"Yesterday, President Obama issued executive orders banning the torture of terrorists but today signed an order that exports the torture of unborn children around the world," said Tony Perkins, president of the far-right Family Research Council (FRC). "Thanks to his actions today, U.S. taxpayers will be forced to take part in exporting a culture of death."

Obama's order came one day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion in the United States. The day is traditionally marked, as it was again this year, by a protest rally and march in Washington by thousands of anti-abortion activists.

The anniversary has been used by two previous presidents to reverse their predecessors' policies on U.S. funding and other support for organisations involved with family planning and abortion.

On Jan 22, 1993, President Bill Clinton lifted a Ronald Reagan-imposed ban – called the "Mexico City policy" after the site of the international conference at which it was first announced – on U.S. funding to organisations that provided abortion-related services or lobbied their governments to ease restrictions on the availability of abortions. Exactly eight years later, Bush re-imposed the ban.

Obama's political aides made it clear this week, however, that he would not sign the order repealing Bush's ban on the anniversary in order to avoid gratuitously provoking anti-abortion forces, whose rank and file consists primarily of Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Catholics.

"We don't want to rub anyone's nose in it," one Obama adviser, who expects to work on population issues for the new administration, told IPS.

While Christian Right leaders, such as Perkins, have long argued the Mexico City policy reduces the number of abortions worldwide, critics of the ban have contended that it has had the opposite effect, in major part because it cut off funding to clinics that provided condoms and other forms of contraception to hundreds of thousands of clients, resulting inevitably in an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies that were terminated by abortions, too many of them performed in back-alley operations.

According to UNFPA, more than 200 million women lack access to safe and effective contraception, and some 74,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions.

A report published by Population Action International (PAI) found that clinics and other providers in 29 countries were cut off by the ban, including a clinic in Lesotho that distributed 400,000 condoms between 1998 and 2000.

It found that eight clinics in Kenya were closed altogether, while 30 percent of health professionals in all of the non-profit health clinics in the country were cut after the ban took effect. The ban also resulted in a 50-percent reduction in the staff of one of Ghana's largest family-planning providers and near-doubling in the number of women seeking post-abortion care for complications due to the cut-off in contraceptive supplies.

"Women's health has been severely impacted by the cut-off of assistance," said PAI's Tod Preston. "President Obama's will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, abortions and women dying from high-risk pregnancies because they don't have access to family planning."

Still, the ban's advocates insist that lifting it will have serious consequences. "Contrary to some misunderstandings, enforcement of the Mexico City Policy did not reduce the amount of money spent on the programme, nor will his order increase the amount," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).

"Rather the policy affects what types of groups qualify for grants under the programme. Obama's order will predictably result in a redirection of funds to groups such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which are ideologically committed to the doctrine that abortion on demand must be universally available as a birth control method."

The United States has historically been the world's biggest bilateral source of family-planning assistance, contributing on average nearly 500 million dollars a year to population programmes over the past decade. In real terms, however, U.S. family-planning aid has dropped more than 40 percent since 1995, according to Sippel.

Congress had repeatedly authorised funding for UNFPA over the past eight years, but Bush refused to spend it, alleging that the agency indirectly supports China's family-planning policies, which, in some provinces, includes coercive abortions.

The Senate appropriated 45 million dollars for UNFPA in 2009, while the House of Representatives appropriated 60 million dollars for the agency, but a final bill, in which the versions are to be reconciled, has yet to be approved.

 
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