United States: Women’s Health Advocates praise Obama for lifting Global Gag Rule

Democracy Now!
President Obama has lifted the Global Gag Rule that banned US funding for any international healthcare organizations that perform abortions or advocate for the legalization of abortion.
The Global Gag Rule was seen by many as a major global barrier to access to crucial women’s health services. President Ronald Reagan imposed the gag rule in 1984. It was rescinded under Bill Clinton, but reimposed again after President George W. Bush took office.
AMY GOODMAN: The Mexico City Policy, as it was known, banned funding even if those activities were funded by non-US money. [...] Obama signed the order to again rescind it [the Gag Rule] one day after the thirty-sixth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized abortion in the United States.

I’m joined right now by Marianne Mollman. She is the women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. She has extensive field work experience on reproductive rights in the United States and abroad.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of the Global Gag Rule? Explain exactly what it did and what it means to lift it.

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: The Global Gag Rule had two main effects. On the one hand, it banned organizations from providing services, essential services, for women who needed abortions or who needed care for abortions. And on the other hand, it limited significantly democratic dialogue on what is essentially a huge public health issue in a number of countries, in particular in developing countries. So it really had an effect both in terms of services, and then it had an effect in terms of how the society was able to deal with these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain how the gag rule was imposed. You have an organization in another country. What are they allowed to do? What are they not allowed to do?

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: Well, actually, the Global Gag Rule is much more limited than the manner in which it was imposed. So we have a situation of a sort of Chinese whispers or Chinese telephone that doesn’t work, where you have a very staunch anti-choice dialogue or discourse coming out of D.C. that everybody hears, and then you have a gag rule that basically gags you from dealing with abortion as a so-called family planning method, but not abortion after rape and not abortion where it would save the life of the pregnant woman. It also doesn’t impose any gagging on post-abortion care.

But all of this doesn’t reach the organization who is actually providing the services. What they hear is what Washington is saying, and then there are grantees and sub-grantees all the way down, and these very intricate rules have to be explained, and often they’re not. And so, you find a situation of self-gagging, in fact, where organizations will not provide services that they could have provided, because all they hear is “By the end of the year, you may have to give back a large amount of your funding if you even as much as whisper ‘abortion.’” And that is the worst effect it had, the self-gagging, this overimposure.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone from Nairobi, Kenya by Dr. Sarah Onyango. She’s director of the Africa regional program for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Dr. Onyango, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s interesting that the man whose father was born in Kenya, Barack Obama, when he becomes president of the United States, one of his first acts in office was to lift this Global Gag Rule. Your response, and how it affected you and your clinic?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: I hope you can hear me well, and thank you very much for inviting me to take part on this program. We here in Kenya, especially those working in the field of reproductive health and rights, are very excited about the reversal of the Global Gag Rule, because the Global Gag Rule has had significant negative effects on general access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, you know, resulting in negative consequences for women in our region, both in Kenya and the African region. So we’re very excited about this reversal and see it as a step forward to improving the lives of women, especially as it relates to sexual and reproductive health issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had clinics in Kenya that chose to close rather than abide by the gag rule?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: My line is so bad. Could you just repeat that again?

AMY GOODMAN: You had clinics in Kenya that chose to close rather than abide by the gag rule?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: Yes, we did. The two main organizations that—two major organizations that signed against the Global Gag Rule were the Family Planning Association of Kenya—it’s the IPPF affiliate in Kenya—and Marie Stopes International. Both the two organizations were previously very large beneficiaries of USAID funding. And following the Mexico City Policy, they lost up to 50 percent of their resources. And the direct effect was that they had to close several of their clinics and reduce the services they were providing, and so really reducing access for services for many women that depended on these two organizations for care.

AMY GOODMAN: How did that affect family planning in Kenya?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: It affected family planning very significantly. Family planning in Kenya was kind of started in the late ’70s, and since the time family planning was taken up as a national policy, Kenya was one of the countries that really showed progressive increase in uptake of family planning, with the contraceptive prevalence rate going up steadily from the late ’70s to, you know, towards the end of the ’80s and the ’90s. And in around 1989, 2003, the contraceptive prevalence rate had reached 39 percent and was one of the highest in Africa. And this was because of the role that was played mainly by—through community-based distribution of contraceptives.

And Family Planning Association of Kenya was one of the organizations that led the community-based family planning service delivery here in Kenya. And so, when they cut down their services, the community-based distribution of contraceptives was greatly affected. And this is clearly documented in a subsequent demographic and health survey in the country, which showed a stagnation in the contraceptive prevalence rate. It wasn’t going up anymore. And now there’s even—it’s expected that the next survey will show a significant decline in contraceptive prevalence rate in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Marianne Mollman, you’ve done a lot of research on reproductive rights in Latin America. Can you talk about the effect of the Global Gag Rule when it’s imposed and when it’s not imposed?

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: The major effect in Latin America was actually a gagging effect, a gagging on democracy. Latin America, as opposed to Africa, has not depended on US aid for a provision of services in the same—to the same extent. So while there was some closing of services, in particular, of the IPPF affiliate organizations, International Planned Parenthood Federation had decided not to sign the gag rule. And all their federates were affected by this. So that was—there was a service effect there.

But there was, moreover, an effect—this effect I was describing before of gagging democracy. You have a public health crisis, where in many countries a third of maternal mortality is created by—is a direct consequence of unsafe abortion. And you can’t talk about it. Lawmakers cannot go to the very experts who know how to deal with this public health crisis and have them talk about this.

And I think that’s a significant effect on something that must be dealt with in this country legislatively. There is a bill that has been introduced—it passed at Senate in the last Senate—that’s called the Global Democracy Promotion Act, that would make it impossible for any future president to reimpose the gag rule. And I think that’s where this country has to go now. There can’t be this flip back and forth.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain it again.

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: This Global Democracy Promotion Act, what it would do would be to say no president, no administration can impose conditionalities on aid to foreign organizations that would be unconstitutional in the United States. And the Global Gag Rule is unconstitutional in the United States.


MARIANNE MOLLMAN: Because it significantly restricts free speech. It’s an infringement of free speech.

AMY GOODMAN: It says that if you’re in a clinic and a person asks, “And do I have the choice of abortion?” the person can’t even discuss it as—

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: That’s one thing. That’s the free speech in the sort of private sphere. But also, publicly, it says you cannot advocate for decriminalization of abortion. You can’t go out there and say, “Well, we have a legal situation now where abortion is not permitted, but it would actually be better if it were permitted.” You can’t even do that. And that’s what this bill would deal with. It would say, well, no president can impose that on another country, because we already know it’s a bad thing for us. So why would we impose it on others?

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve looked specifically at Peru?


AMY GOODMAN: What is happening in Peru?

MARIANNE MOLLMAN: In Peru, there was this very great fear and—of talking about anything that had to do with abortion. So a number of organizations had actually certified under the Global Gag Rule, and they were so afraid of the imposition that this meant that they didn’t even want to talk about what it meant for their services. It was very hard to get them on record to say, “This rule affects our service provision,” even though they would certainly say that privately.

And for me, that was—it was really a surprise to what extent it created fear and this sort of sense of “We can’t even provide post-abortion care,” which is not prohibited by the gag rule, or “We can’t deal with women who have been raped,” which is also not prohibited by the gag rule. Everybody was so afraid to talk, so afraid to provide services. And that’s really not a situation you want in a very new democracy that’s starting to try to deal with these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Sarah Onyango, speaking to us from Kenya, I was curious, your name, Sarah Onyango, is the same as Barack Obama’s grandmother. Are you related, or is it just a common name?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: Oh, fortunately, unfortunately, actually we’re not related. Just happens Onyango is a common name in Kenya. And where I come from, people are named according to the time when you’re born. So, Onyango are people who were born mid-morning. So we just probably share a birthplace. But the fact that we share two names is a greater—it’s quite surprising. There are three people on the internet called Sarah Onyango, so she’s one of them, and I’m the other, and there’s a third person.

AMY GOODMAN: And when Barack Obama was inaugurated, what happened in Kenya? Were there celebrations?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: There were lots of celebrations. For us in Kenya, Kenyans see Barack Obama as one of us, you know? He’s really considered a son of this country. And so, it was a great thing. We started celebrating on the 4th of November, straight after the elections. And this week of the inauguration in the United States, there were many functions that were in front of the birthplace in western Kenya. There were many celebrations in the big city of Kisumu in western Kenya. And I think it’s been an opportunity for Kenyans. Kenyans see that change is possible, and it’s possible to have a fair and open election. You know, these are significant social and political issues just raised by the fact that Obama was elected president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Onyango, do you think it will have an effect on your own elections next year in Kenya?

DR. SARAH ONYANGO: Our next elections are due in 2012, so we have three more years or so to go. And I am sure it will have an effect on our next election. I’m sure that the lessons from the United States will be used here to make a change in our leadership, because there are so many social and political issues in our country that we need to deal with, and I think the lessons from Obama’s victory will play a big role.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Dr. Sarah Onyango, joining us from Kenya, from the capital Nairobi, director of Africa regional program for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. And Marianne Mollman, she is a women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, her expertise in reproductive rights, particularly looking abroad in Latin America and also here at home.

27 January 2009

Source: Democracy Now!