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US Finds ‘Gag Rule’ Flaws, but Makes No Changes

Planned New Analysis Should Look at Health Impact of this Harmful Policy

A woman walks past a mural on a Family Health Options clinic in the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya, May 16, 2017. © 2017 Reuters
The State Department released a six-month review of the Trump administration’s Mexico City Policy on February 7. This policy, which the government calls “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance,” is known as the “Global Gag Rule” by many women’s rights advocates.

The rule restricts up to $8.8 billion in US global health funds from going to foreign organizations that use their own, non-US funds to provide abortion, make referrals, or advocate for liberalization of abortion laws. Given the size and influence of US health funds in many countries, the rule affects not only abortion, but the ability of many of the organizations to provide health services such as HIV and cancer screening, family planning, and maternal and child health care.

Disappointingly – but not surprisingly – the review is silent on the impact on women and girls. Nongovernmental groups, foreign governments, and even the State Department all agree that six months is not long enough to fully assess the rule’s consequences. Yet, some organizations providing essential health services are already reporting negative results – and the report didn’t reflect that.

Human Rights Watch research in Uganda and Kenya found that it led key organizations to cut essential health services, resulted in a loss of training and equipment from nongovernmental groups for government health clinics, and created widespread confusion.

The government’s report notes that four prime recipient organizations and 12 sub-awardee groups have chosen not to certify compliance and have lost funding – but it doesn’t describe the harm losing those funds has caused.

The government report recognizes confusion about some applications of the policy, and recommends steps that could help dispel some of the chilling effects and overbroad application of the policy. This is helpful – but the rule is still bad policy.

The State Department recommended another review for December. If the six-month review is any indication of the process, Congress should step in, hold hearings on the impact, and mandate an annual, consultative, rigorous, and public review of how this rule is affecting women’s and girls’ health.

For more information, see “Trump’s ‘Mexico City Policy’ or ‘Global Gag Rule’: Questions and Answers.”

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