The Global Gag Rule Isn't 'Pro-Life'—It's Lethal
In her op-ed for Broadly, Senator Jeanne Shaheen explains how the anti-abortion policy expanded under Trump will leave millions of the world's poorest women injured or dead—which is why she is co-sponsoring a bill to permanently repeal it.
Photo courtesy Senator Jeanne Shaheen
Rowland Taylor is a doctor in Freetown, South Africa who treats an average of two women a week for complications from unsafe abortions. He spoke to a reporter about one of them, a nursing student who came to him bleeding heavily: "She died in front of my office door. Her head was slumped back in her wheelchair. She was 24 years old." President Trump's restoration of the Mexico City Policy will result in many more of these heartbreaking deaths.
This policy is commonly called the Global Gag Rule because it prohibits US funding for international women's health organizations that so much as mention abortion as an option with their patients. It is defended as "pro-life." The harsh reality is that it results in tens of millions of additional unsafe abortions every year and leaves millions of the world's poorest women injured, maimed, or dead.
Across much of Africa and Asia, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions are a pervasive fact of life. In developing countries, an estimated 74 million unintended pregnancies occur annually due to lack of access to effective contraception, according to Marie Stopes International (MSI), a group that provides women's healthcare in 37 countries. Nearly a quarter of these pregnancies end in an unsafe abortion, killing an estimated 44,000 women and leaving millions more with long-term illness or disabilities.
To step up to this challenge, the United States has provided nearly half of global funding for women's access to contraception, mostly through organizations such as CARE that are funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). During past Republican administrations, the Global Gag Rule applied only to women's health organizations receiving USAID funding, totaling $544 million this year. In January, the Trump administration re-instituted the policy and expanded it to all global health assistance furnished by all departments and agencies — more than $10 billion in funding.
The fallacy of the Global Gag Rule is that by banning abortion or even mention of abortion as an option, this will actually stop abortion. It doesn't.
The fallacy of the Global Gag Rule is that by banning abortion or even mention of abortion as an option, this will actually stop abortion. It doesn't. Evidence shows that this policy denies access to safe abortion but it does not decrease the prevalence of abortion. In poor countries, according to MSI executive Maaike van Min, women who are desperate to end a pregnancy but denied access to safe abortion will risk their lives on dangerous alternatives. Van Min recalled the anguished plea of a patient who had already endured nine pregnancies: "If I have another pregnancy, this will kill me. Make it stop."
This desperation explains why the Global Gag Rule is so lethal. The policy denies funding to key front-line organizations dedicated to providing contraception and to preventing unwanted pregnancies. This has the unintended consequence of dramatically increasing the number of abortions. In a landmark Stanford University study of 20 sub-Saharan African countries between 2001 to 2008 (when the Global Gag Rule was in effect during the George W. Bush administration), researchers found that the number of women having induced abortions more than doubled in countries that were most impacted by the policy. The researchers concluded that reduced access to modern contraceptives led women to seek abortion as a form of birth control.
At a hearing last month in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I challenged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the disastrous consequences of the administration's expanded Global Gag Rule. His response indicated that the impact would be "minimal." I asked him if he considered it "minimal" that an estimated 6.5 million unwanted pregnancies, 2.1 million unsafe abortions, and 21,700 maternal deaths would result from the expanded rule. He said that the State Department supports the rule no matter what the impact on women's health.
This callous disregard for both facts and women's wellbeing is unacceptable. Equally unacceptable is the appalling toll that this misguided policy takes on millions of the world's most vulnerable women and girls. That's why Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and I are jointly sponsoring the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act, which would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule. We believe that all women have the right to be informed and in charge of their own reproductive decisions.
Many women will die.
Anti-abortion activists and the Trump administration see the reinstated and expanded Global Gag Rule as a trophy of their electoral success. But this trophy is tarnished by the suffering of impoverished women across the developing world. If the Global Gag Rule stands, millions of women will lose access to contraception and the result will be more abortions in dirty, dangerous conditions. Many women will die. You can call the administration's approach the Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule, but please don't call it "pro-life."