Protect Foreign Women from U.S. Religious Extremist Policies in Foreign Aid

Yemmi Samta didn't know that her 14-year-old-daughter, Saron, was pregnant until she found her unconscious and bleeding profusely on the dirt floor of her ramshackle house. Samta begged a neighbor to load Saron onto a donkey cart and take her to the nearest clinic, 12 miles away. The girl died on the way from septicemia, a form of blood poisoning, and loss of blood. Saron had had a back alley abortion.

In places like rural Ethiopia, non-government organizations often provide the only option for women and girls who need abortions. Unfortunately, a U.S. policy created in 1984 has often restricted foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive US family planning funds from using their own non-US funds to provide legal abortion services. The NGO’s are also often prohibited from advocating for abortion law reform in their own countries, or even provide accurate medical counseling or referrals regarding abortion.

It’s known as the Gag rule because it restricts access to basic accurate women’s health information and services. The global gag rule is a symbol to the world of how American foreign policy is swayed by powerful religious interest groups. These groups view foreign aid funding as a vehicle to impose their religious attitudes onto people in other countries, including many of the most vulnerable low-income people on earth.

Since President Reagan initiated the gag rule, it has symbolized how the Religious Right has manipulated federal policy to promote their religious values and deny woman the health care services and information they rightfully need and deserve. The global gag rule prohibits a woman from knowing her medical options under the guise that to allow her comprehensive information and care would encourage what some religious groups label as immoral actions and behaviors. No Congress or President should be telling women overseas -- or in the U.S. -- what medical choices they should be allowed to make, nor denying them accurate information. By prohibiting federal funds from being directed to hospitals, clinics and non-governmental organizations that provide accurate reproductive information and appropriate services, they are using American taxpayers to mandate their particular religious brand of “moral” behavior and propaganda based on the views of specially privileged religious groups.

Who sits in the Oval Office determines whether or not the global gag rule is in place. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama overturned the policy when they entered office, while Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush re-installed it under their watch. The lives and rights of women cannot continue to flip flop with Presidential power. It is time that Congress permanently repeals this gag rule, so no matter who is in the Oval Office, federal funds can go to hospitals and clinics that provide comprehensive reproductive information and services, rather than only to those that restrict informing women of all their choices and rights.

The Secular Coalition for America supports the passage of the Global Democracy Promotion Act (H.R.4879/S.311) introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that would permanently repeal the global gag rule. A permanent repeal is necessary to ensure that US-funded organizations can continue to implement policies that meet the needs of women and families around the world regardless of who is President.

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