We Cannot Miss This Opportunity to Permanently End the Global Gag Rule

Nearly half of women globally still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception, or seek health care, according to research by UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency. As UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem stated: “In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others.”

For better or worse, the U.S. plays an outsized role in global health, and by virtue of some of its policies, an outsized role in this governance. Harmful U.S. foreign policies like the global gag rule — which prevents foreign non-governmental organizations from receiving U.S. funding if they provide information about, referrals to, or services for legal abortion, or advocate for legalized abortion, even with their own, non-U.S. funds — put bodily autonomy even further out of reach for millions of people.

Right now, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to permanently end the global gag rule; but the pathway is narrow, and the clock is ticking. The global gag rule was rescinded by executive action by the Biden-Harris Administration as one of its early actions in office. This is important, but it is also potentially temporary; without a permanent legislative repeal, the policy can be re-enacted at the whim of any U.S. president based on their own views and priorities.

“The global gag rule is backwards and unjust and counterproductive and ideologically based,” said Fern Shepard, President, Rachel’s Network, a community of women funders at the intersection of environmental advocacy, philanthropy, and leadership. “As we end the 21st year of the 21st century, it’s time to be done with it for good. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”

“The global gag rule is a massive human rights violation and crisis by the U.S.,” said Tarah Demant, Director, Gender, Sexuality and Identity Program, Amnesty International USA. “This policy is so retrogressive, so out of step. It damages individual lives, and international relations. This is not global leadership.”

“This year and the coming month are really our best shot to get it done,” said Caitlin Horrigan, Director, Global Advocacy, Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “There are two key things to remember here: the first is that it’s urgent — the work is not done simply because the policy was rescinded. And the second is that it’s winnable — we have a real opportunity to make progress, but it’s going to take everyone to make it happen.”

Partners across the globe are calling on us in the U.S. to prioritize a permanent legislative repeal. The breadth of the impacts of the global gag rule go beyond sexual and reproductive health and rights — it destabilizes the entire global health system.

“The global gag rule completely undermines our own constitution,” said Nerima Were, Deputy Executive Director, Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN). “And it wasn’t only impacting sexual and reproductive health and rights; the expansion [under the Trump Administration] to PEPFAR significantly fractured our health system and how services were being delivered.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic layered on top of a health system weakened by the global gag rule, women have been bearing the burden, said Corinne Paul, Global Health Policy Advocate, CARE USA. “In addition, the global gag rule prevents providers from giving patients the full range of information and services to which they are entitled, breaking down trust between patient and caregiver. This trust is so important when it comes to sharing information and responding to health crises like COVID,” and any other health challenges that arise.

Here in the U.S., there is broad and bipartisan coalition of support behind the repeal — in Congress, in the Administration, and in civil society. In fact, 195 representatives and 51 senators support the bill to permanently repeal the global gag rule. And the Biden-Harris Administration made clear its support for a permanent repeal in its early executive actions and its recently released National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. But the reality is we need to turn this support into concrete action before it’s too late.

“A permanent repeal would also begin to rebuild trust in global health assistance, trust that has declined over the last years,” added Nerima. “So many countries most affected by the global gag rule are dependent on this assistance. These policies do not just affect one country, they affect the whole world.”

“This is not a niche issue,” said Tarah. “This is a basic human rights priority. If we can get this done, every boat will rise.”

What’s happening in the U.S. is connected to what the U.S. exports around the world, and ending the global gag rule now can change the future at home and abroad. It’s clear that there is a well-resourced, systemic erosion of our rights in the U.S. that has led us to this point in which Roe v. Wade and our constitutional rights hang by a thread. This is part of the same strategy by the opposition that created the global gag rule to erode women’s access to essential health care around the world.

“We know that decisions in one place can have a motivating or chilling impact in other places,” said Caitlin. “There’s also a real lesson learned on being more proactive and getting out of this defensive mode so that we’re not in the crisis we find ourselves in the U.S. where our rights are on the line. Ending the global gag rule will create this enabling environment where sexual and reproductive health can flourish in new and unprecedented ways around the world.”

“That we’re still working to protect sexual and reproductive health and rights domestically shows why permanently ending the global gag rule is so important,” said Corinne. “We don’t want the health funding so many rely on to change just because our domestic political dynamics may change.”

After a permanent repeal, what could come next? Envisioning a world where the global gag rule was gone for good, Nerima said: “Health and human rights for all, and a world that is more equitable and more understanding of the differences between people — bridging the gap in humanity, not furthering it.”

“It’s hard to overestimate what’s possible with a united global movement for sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said Caitlin. “Ending the global gag rule is part of what can unite this movement and accelerate sustainable progress.”

“I envision a healthy, thriving, and just environment,” said Fern. “We can’t do that with the global gag rule. This is our opportunity, and we’ve got to dig in.”

“I hope we come out in a better place, that the pandemic shines a light on the importance of investing in better health systems around the world for all people. When people of all genders can make informed decisions about their own bodies, it helps us all” said Corinne.

“There is a hunger for this,” said Tarah. “We’re part of an abortion revolution in which people can access the basic health care they need, including abortion care, free of stigma, with support, and without interference from the government. This revolution is here, it exists, and we can be part of it.”

“What can individuals do?” she added. “Everything you can. We are in a position of real people power — reach out to your representatives in Congress and let them know this is your top priority. It’s urgent, and it’s winnable — we can win this, and this can be a win for everyone who cares about human rights.”

Hear more from the experts in the webinar briefing: The Global Gag Rule: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going; and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.

Executive Director, Universal Access Project — striving for a world where all people can realize their sexual and reproductive health and rights.