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Ohioans Fight Back Against Global Gag Rule

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Ohioans Fight Back Against Global Gag RuleThe Ohio #Fight4HER campaign group lobbies at Sen. Rob Portman's office on April 30.
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While a federal judge has blocked the domestic “gag rule,” the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, lives on, and Ohioans are part of a nationwide grassroots efforts to fight it. 

Population Connection Action Fund (PCAF) is the national organization running the campaign to #Fight4HER, meaning, fight for the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act (HER). The piece of legislation, one of PCAF’s three legislative goals, would rescind the global gag rule permanently. The campaign is gaining traction in swing states like Wisconsin, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Similar to the domestic gag rule, the global gag rule blocks any foreign, non-governmental organization (NGO) from providing services related to abortion — including counseling, referral, or advocating for the liberalization of abortion laws in one’s own country — if they wish to keep U.S. funding. Ronald Reagan was the first president to establish the rule in 1984, and since then it’s ping-ponged in and out of U.S. policy, rescinded by every Democratic president and reinstated with every Republican administration.

For NGOs providing reproductive health services, including discussing women’s health and maternal mortality in the developing world, the gag rule is detrimental to their work, prohibiting them from discussing the role of abortion, be it legal and safe or not.

Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK) is just one organization impacted by Trump’s gag rule. Since 2009, the organization provided more than 12 million services that helped reduce the unmet need for contraceptives from 26 to 18 percent, resulting in a drop in the nation’s maternal mortality rate as well. FHOK has lost half of its funding as a result of the gag rule.

Profamilia, a Colombian NGO providing reproductive health services, affordable contraceptives, health education and programs addressing gender-based violence, has lost funding, affecting their program reducing maternal mortality and a Zika prevention program.

Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN) lost U.S. funding during the George W. Bush administration, resulting in the lay-off of 60 health workers, the elimination of mobile reproductive health clinics, and the depletion in their supply of birth control. In 2009, after Barack Obama lifted the gag rule and FPAN’s funding was restored, Nepal’s maternal mortality rate — one of the highest in the world — dropped by a third.

Along with slashing efforts fighting maternal and infant mortality, the global gag rule doesn’t even achieve its goal of reducing the number of abortions women and individuals have. According to a 2011 study by researchers at Stanford University, women in sub-Saharan Africa were more likely to substitute illegal abortion for the contraception they no longer had access to. A more recent study, from Rutgers in 2018, shows that women in some regions are up to three times more likely to induce abortion while the global gag rule is in effect.

“It’s not about being pro-life, it’s hypocritical. It’s about controlling women’s bodies,” says Lauren Salmiery, national field director for the Population Connection Action Fund. “Part of what the global gag rule does is it cuts off access to family planning services, birth control, cancer screenings — very similar to what the domestic gag rule is doing here in the United States as well. So this increase in unsafe abortion is a direct result of these anti-choice movements.”

This time around, the global gag rule has gotten broader, aimed not just at reproductive health organizations, but at any NGO receiving U.S. global health assistance. That means clinics preventing and treating HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis, and malaria. 

Prabh Virk, the Ohio campaign organizer for the #Fight4HER campaign, says the expansion has had a “chilling effect.” 

“Lauren Salmiery went to an international family planning conference. Doctors would see the ‘#Fight4HER, fight back against the global gag rule’ — they’d see that and say, ‘We can’t talk to you,’” Prabh says. “There are usually exceptions for sexual assault and the life of the mother, but clinics are just so afraid of losing their funding, they’re questioning their decisions.”

A “Die-In” protest on OSU’s campus.

The campaign Virk is running here in Ohio, subsequently, is all about education, on what the gag rule is, what it does, and exactly how far its policy reaches. Last week, she and 200 other volunteer organizers, including many OSU students, submitted nearly 1,700 petition signatures to the office of Sen. Rob Portman to gain his support for the Global HER Act. They’ve engaged with Portman’s staff to relay the impacts of the gag rule: increased maternal and infant mortality rates, sustained or increased number of abortions, and loss of funding for programs addressing other global health crises like HIV/AIDs.

“There’s no receptiveness,” says Virk. “The response we’re getting is ‘We’re pro-life.’ They’re not touching this.”

The Global HER Act has made it into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and it’s received a lot of support in the House. Salmiery is pessimistic about its likelihood of survival in the Senate and, then, on the desk of President Trump, but she’s optimistic about reproductive rights overall.

“In 2018 [in all of U.S.], we received petitions and got over 30,000 people involved, held over 500 events throughout the country, and had 1,000 people volunteer,” Salmiery says. “So, it is getting people involved in the political process and in grassroots organizing. So, you know, we’re feeling fired up and ready to go, and we’re not going to back out of this fight for reproductive rights.”

For more information, visit populationconnectionaction.org.

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