In July, during the first US Senate hearing to examine the impact of the global gag rule on family planning services abroad, the Foreign Relations Committee heard the story of Min Min Lama, a teenage girl living in the mountains of Nepal. At age 13, she was raped by a family member–and sentenced to twenty years in prison for the crime of having an abortion.
Unable to ignore Nepal's dangerously high maternal mortality rate–one caused largely by unsafe abortions–the Nepal Ministry of Health recently joined forces with a slew of nongovernmental organizations to put an end to the country's restrictive abortion law. Enter: George W. Bush toting the global gag rule, named for a clause that prohibits US-funded NGOs from lobbying their governments to legalize abortion. Exit: all NGOs involved in a decriminalization movement that depends on US funds for survival.
The July Senate hearing was one of several attempts by some in Washington to overturn the global gag rule. With the split currently so close in Congress–a May House vote to uphold the policy passed by a margin of only 218 to 210, and several Senate Republicans have agreed to challenge the rule–there may be hope. On July 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill to include language overturning the gag rule and increasing funding for family planning; on August 1, the Foreign Relations Committee amended the Global Democracy Promotion Act to include similar language. Most recently, the American Bar Association voted to adopt a resolution against the gag rule.
Many Republican politicians, swearing that the gag rule will not affect the health of women in developing countries, are quick to point out that the European Union and private organizations have picked up the financial slack created by what European activists deem "American cruelty." But in the six months since Bush's decision to reinstate the 1984 Mexico City Policy, there have been dramatic consequences for the welfare of women abroad. Countries that have thus far reported serious repercussions from signing on to the gag rule or refusing US funds include Bangladesh, Bolivia, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania and Turkey.
Nepal, with the fourth-highest maternal morbidity rate in the world, is a prime example of a country dramatically affected by the change in policy. Roughly six women in Nepal die every day from unsafe abortions. At the same time, Nepal has one of the most punitive abortion laws in the world–one in five women incarcerated in Nepal are imprisoned for abortion. Women faced with the realities of abortion are often young, with 50 percent of Nepali women bearing a child by age 19.
The Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN), the country's largest reproductive health and family-planning NGO, has received financial support from the US government for nearly thirty years. In 1994 FPAN launched an advocacy campaign to liberalize the existing abortion law. As a result, the Nepal Parliament is currently considering ratification of the Eleventh Amendment of the National Civil Code, which legalizes abortion up to the twelfth week; abortion in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening conditions would be allowed until the eighteenth week. Abortion after this period would still be punishable by a prison sentence of five years.
The reinstatement of the gag rule forced FPAN to face either deserting its advocacy campaign or losing its US funding. "This is the challenge," Dr. Nirmal Bista, director general of FPAN, explained. "Do I listen to my own government, which has asked FPAN to help save women's lives, or do I listen to the US government?" Dr. Bista chose the former and has lost almost $250,000 in US funds, which could mean the closure of one or all three of FPAN's clinics.
The story of Nepal is one of many that will continue to surface as this restrictive policy halts the progress of women's rights in developing countries. There will come a time when the Bush Administration can no longer pretend not to grasp simple logic–that the penalty inflicted by the gag rule leads to the loss of family-planning funds, which increases unintended pregnancies and the demand for abortion services. Meanwhile, President Bush will continue to assert his conviction that the United States has the right to shape policy abroad, regardless of its effects on free speech, democratic ideals or human lives.
For more information on how to participate in the effort to overturn the global gag rule, see the following sites:
The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP) provides a wealth of information on the gag rule as well as explanations of the effects of the gag rule worldwide. CRLP has filed suit against President Bush for censoring the speech of Americans under the gag rule. You can sign an online petition urging President Bush to repeal the policy, or fill out a brief questionnaire on how the gag rule may affect your organization.
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) works with member associations throughout the developing world and is one of the few organizations that have refused to sign the global gag rule. This site includes an online petition, questions and answers about the gag rule and numerous links, commentary and news alerts.
Pathfinder International provides women, men and adolescents in the developing world with access to quality family-planning services. Take action by joining the group's e-mail action network and becoming a "Pathfinder for Policy." The network provides updates on current international family-planning legislation and sends out e-mail alerts that include sample letters to members of Congress.