Each day, an estimated 830 women die of preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Disproportionately affected are adolescent girls and women living in rural and impoverished areas. Providing women with universal access to family planning is one important and cost-effective way to help reduce maternal deaths. Doing so would decrease maternal deaths by a third. In developing countries, investing in family planning would lead to 2.4 million fewer unsafe abortions (one of the top causes of maternal deaths worldwide according to the WHO) and 5600 fewer maternal deaths related to unintended pregnancies. In addition, it would decrease infant mortality by anywhere from 10 to 20%.
Availability of family planning services has clear benefits in protecting the health of women and children, but it also offers so much more than that. When women can plan the timing and spacing of their pregnancies, women are more likely to attend and finish school; achieve higher levels of education; gain access to better job opportunities; contribute positively to her community; and improves the chances that she will invest in her children’s health, education, and well-being. In short, when women do better, societies do better.
This is all at grave risk now. As part of Trump’s first executive order, he reinstated the global gag rule which when implemented, states that the US can withhold family planning foreign assistance to any foreign non-governmental organization that so little as provides information on abortions, and that’s even if the organization receives funding from other sources. It’s important to note that the US already prohibits any foreign assistance from funding abortions under the Helms Amendment, which has been in place since 1973.
The re-enactment of the global gag rule comes as no surprise, as historically it has been re-enacted by every Republican president since Reagan then overturned by every Democratic president. Ironically although it has been argued that the gag role was put into place to decrease the number of abortions, a Stanford study found that abortions actually increased in years that the gag rule was in effect. It has also been shown that cutting off family planning funding to these organizations severely limits and in some cases, completely ceases, their ability to provide contraceptives and reproductive health services, thus increasing unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions and further worsening maternal health outcomes.
The newest reinstatement of this rule however, extends far beyond the scope of the original rule and withholds all US global health assistance, not just family planning foreign assistance, to organizations that perform or provide any counseling, referrals, information, or advocacy on abortions. This revision of the global gag rule will not only hurt the millions of women in some of the poorest areas of the world who heavily rely on US-funded organizations which provide family planning services like contraception, but now impacts vulnerable men, women, and children alike. That’s because many of these organizations provide so much more than reproductive health services. Many of these organizations are hospitals and clinics, which in addition to reproductive health services, provide the full spectrum of medical care including life-saving childhood vaccinations, treatment for survivors of gender-based violence, HIV prevention and care, prenatal and postnatal care, and play a vital role in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola.
This is an unprecedented setback for the global health community and a huge threat to the advances that we have made in the fight against emerging infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child mortality to name a few. We cannot let the progress we’ve worked so hard for be eradicated. Let us always remember that progress is something we must work for everyday, a call to action that is becoming more imperative in the precarious times ahead of us.
US support for family planning foreign assistance currently stands at $575 million to 40 countries. With the institution of this new rule, $9 billion of global health assistance to 60 countries is currently at stake.
Here are a few ways to get involved:
- Call your local Senator and ask them to support the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act, being introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D – New Hampshire), which will repeal the global gag rule permanently. You can contact your Senator by calling the US Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. Calling is the most effective way to reach your member of Congress.
- Inform yourself and others about the global gag rule and its implications.
- The US is currently one of the largest donors to international family planning and reproductive health efforts in the world. With all that’s at stake, consider donating your time or money to organizations that provide funding or advocacy for international family planning.
Read APHA’s statement opposing reinstatement of the global gag rule.