"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

1.29.2009

gag reflex

Late last week, President Obama lifted a Bush administration policy that's known variously as the Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule. The Global Gag Rule actually dates from Reagan, who instituted the policy that any international group that advocates abortion or provides information to women about abortion cannot get funding from the United States. Application of the Global Gag Rule flip flops between Republican and Democratic administrations; George H.W. Bush kept it in place, Clinton repealed it, and George W. Bush reinstated it.

Most pro-life advocates strongly support the Global Gag Rule, on the basis that they would rather not have tax dollars going to support abortion. Never mind that the rule has nothing to do with actually providing abortions; it applies only to providing funds to groups that advocate abortion or provide information about abortion. (There are other restrictions in spending bills about not using tax dollars to provide abortions.)

The problem with the Global Gag Rule is that, as Obama's executive order lifting the ban stated, its restrictions are "excessively broad." Why? Because most countries that get development assistance funding from the U.S. in the health care sector are developing countries. And abortion is illegal under most circumstances in a large number of those countries, especially in Africa. In most cases, abortion is allowed only to save the mother's life. Given the level of prenatal care available in most of sub-Saharan Africa, most women won't know that their lives are in danger from a pregnancy until it's well past the time that abortion would be an option.

There are exceptions to this standard in Africa, and standards are different in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Republics, other areas to which we direct funding.

The Global Gag Rule doesn't take a country's policies on abortion into account. Instead, it blocks funding from any organization that supports abortion rights anywhere in the world. That means if Planned Parenthood operates a clinic in rural Uganda that gives advice on family planning and provides prenatal screening, it loses funding when the Global Gag Rule is in effect because of its pro-choice stance on policies in the U.S. This happens regardless of the fact that abortion is illegal in Uganda unless it involves preserving the mother's life or health.

When the Bush administration reinstated the Global Gag Rule in 2001, clinics all over Africa lost all of their funding. In many places, especially in Kenya and Ghana, it meant that tens of thousands of people lost their only access to health care. Period.

Family planning is a touchy subject, particularly with American social conservatives, but I haven't met a single African woman who thinks its a bad idea. You have to imagine what your life would be like if you were a poor woman and you had a baby every year for 10 or 15 years. You can't educate those children, and because you don't get high-quality health care, your body is broken and worn down. Successive pregnancies become more and more risky, and the risk that you'll die and leave your children behind is huge. Most African women just want the same kind of options that women in the U.S. have.

They also need access to pre-natal and peri-natal care, services that in many cases are only provided by groups that lose their funding when the Global Gag Rule is in effect. Many Americans think that Planned Parenthood shouldn't get money for these kinds of activities. But how is it pro-life to prevent mothers and infants from receiving essential medical care?

It's very reasonable for the taxpayers of the United States to expect that their tax dollars won't be used to fund pro-choice groups that are advocating for abortion rights. But taking away funding from a local nurse who is the only trained health care professional serving 20,000 people in a country in which abortion is illegal isn't the solution. And when no one else is there - the Southern Baptist Convention dropped funding for many of its clinics in Africa when its leaders decided to focus on church planting rather than traditional medical missions - the Global Gag Rule contributes not to life, but to the deaths of innocent mothers and their children.

There's a better way to address these issues in a way that keeps everyone happy. Let's hope that sanity prevails over ideology for once.

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