Opinion: Impacts of the Global Gag Rule

Matt RomneyNews

By: Preethi Sundaram, Policy and Advocacy Adviser, IPPF

Over the last two decades, we have seen enormous and exciting advances in terms of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls.

From an increased policy focus on rights, to significant drops in maternal mortality, to increased uptake of family planning and more girls in secondary schools, we have made huge strides.

But recent political shifts have changed the landscape globally for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. These shifts are more than a superficial signal from the corridors of power across the world in Washington, Moscow, or Manila. They will have long lasting effects on the lives of girls and young women across the world.

The Mexico City Policy, or the Global Gag Rule (GGR), is part of a concerted effort to roll back on women’s rights, to limit our freedoms.

This is not the first time we have felt the impacts of the GGR. However, unlike the GGR implemented under the Bush administration, we now face the expansion of the GGR to all global health programming and the scale of the impact of this policy will be significant. It is estimated that in financial terms we are likely to see 14 – 16 times the amount of funding being impacted than if GGR was applied only to bilateral family planning assistance.

The ‘GGR’ is an Executive Order passed by the Trump administration on 23rd January 2017. The policy serves to:

  • Deny U.S. funding to global health organizations if they use money from other donors to provide abortion services, counselling or referrals;
  • This is despite these services being legal in the country and in the U.S.; and
  • Ultimately, it removes critical funding for life-saving health services like contraception, maternal health, Zika, and HIV prevention and treatment.

The effects of the GGR will be felt in many ways. The impact of the GGR could undermine efforts to deliver on related development agendas, for example Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, which all UN Member States have signed up to. Global human rights standards and state policy play a key role in protecting women’s rights and providing necessary safeguards. We cannot afford to see a drop in these standards.

Restrictive policies like these, coupled with a lack of access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and patriarchal views of women and their reproductive role shape our decisions around contraception, pregnancy, abortion and determine if, when and how many children we should have. When our reproductive and sexual rights are threatened, when they are violated, this touches every aspect of our lives. It affects our health, our safety; it shapes our opportunities in education, at work, in public life.

The fight for reproductive justice is a longstanding one.

As women’s rights activists, we strive to protect our rights, to ensure they are fulfilled, to move the agenda forwards. Now in many spaces and contexts, we find ourselves in a defensive position, trying to hold onto what we have gained, making arguments about the value of our basic human rights.

We are fighting to stand still. 

Ironically, the evidence shows that previously the GGR did not reduce the number of (unsafe) abortions; rather, by eliminating access to contraception, it led to more unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions. A 2011 study found the odds of a woman having an abortion in countries that were most dependent on U.S. foreign aid were more than twice those observed in less-dependent countries.

We also know that it is the most vulnerable women who will suffer most: the policy will hit– the poorest women, women of colour, disabled women, the most remote and those under 25. The GGR also infringes upon freedom of speech: it interferes with the doctor-client relationship; and limits options for liberalizing abortion laws based on public health concerns and human rights.

The effects of the GGR go beyond the devastating impact on the lives of girls and women worldwide. There is likely to be a rise in the anti-choice movement: we also expect that by defunding some organisations, funding will become available for organisations that deliver anti-choice messages or programmes. Moreover, there is likely to be a “chilling effect” in that other NGOs not affected by the GGR are less likely to be willing to work with organizations that did not sign.

The regions that will be most affected include Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. In terms of the impact of the GGR on IPPF’s services and clients we serve, we expect cuts to SRHR funding in at least 30 countries and will stand to lose up to $100 million over the next 3 years.

In practical terms, this level of funding could have (over 5 years):

  • Prevented 4.8 million unintended pregnancies
  • Prevented 1.7 million unsafe abortions
  • We expect some of our Member Associations’ funding could be cut by as high as 30-60 per cent as a result of GGR.
  • We expect to see clinics, community outreach centres forced to close resulting in loss of access to contraception, more unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions.

Women’s reproductive rights are used to stir up emotive responses and to undermine the value and status of women and girls in society. From further restrictions on already restrictive abortion laws in Poland, to the inhumane treatment of a 10-year-old girl in Paraguay being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, to the unjust imprisonment of Maria Teresa Rivera in El Salvador, to the political battlefield of reproductive rights within the context of the US elections and the reinstatement and expansion of the GGR, our rights, our bodies, our pleasures, are politicized and affronted.

So, what opportunities and challenges do we have in terms of fighting for our reproductive and sexual rights?

We have seen strong strides in terms of advancing sexual and reproductive health within the SDGs; with SRH and RR being included within the new framework.  However, since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, we have been fighting to expand abortion rights further. The ICPD Plan of Action affirmed that where abortion is legal, it must be safe but made no advances on ensuring that safe and legal abortion services are always available. The SDGs have failed to advance abortion rights; they include access to safe abortion only where abortion is legal, as per the ICPD.

Spaces such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Commission on Population and Development and the High-Level Political Forum are more important than ever. We must push in negotiations such as those taking place right now at the CSW, that sexual and reproductive health rights are essential to the realization of the full range of girls’ and women’s human rights.

But global and national legal frameworks are only one side of the coin.

We must also continue to organize.

From campaigns like #Shoutoutyourabortion and las libras, to Speaking of IMELDA to organisations like the Abortion Support Network and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, women’s collective action and solidarity is driving change. We have seen an outpouring of support and outrage; women marching across the world demanding their rights. We are organizing and resisting.

There are always opportunities for change. We must keep pushing, despite the door often being closed, for eventually, collectively, we will prize it open. Or rather, we’ll smash it down.

Image courtesy of IFFP

About the Author

Preethi Sundaram is a policy and advocacy specialist in the field of women’s human rights. At the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Ms Sundaram is responsible for authoring global policy publications and leads the Federations’ global advocacy on gender equality and works on key human rights processes, such as the Universal Period Review and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Before joining IPPF, Ms Sundaram was policy and campaigns manager at the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading campaign for gender equality. There, Ms Sundaram was responsible for policy, advocacy and parliamentary work relating to women’s workplace rights, maternity rights and political rights. Ms Sundaram holds a B.Sc. in Anthropology from University College London (UCL) and an MSc. in Violence, Conflict and Development with a specialization in Gender from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


Matt RomneyOpinion: Impacts of the Global Gag Rule