The XX Factor

Trump Reinstates the Anti-Abortion “Global Gag Rule” That Has Been a Public Health Disaster

President Trump signs an executive order as Vice President Mike Pence looks on at the White House in Washington on Friday.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

On his first full workday in office, President Donald Trump got straight to work making women’s lives unnecessarily difficult. As expected, Trump signed an executive order reinstating a ban on giving federal family planning funding to international health groups that provide abortion care, refer patients to abortion providers, or even give women information about abortions.

The ban, which was first implemented by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and has been enforced by all Republican administrations since then, has been called the “global gag rule” because it prevents medical professionals and aid workers whose work is supported by U.S. grants from even talking about termination as an option for women with unwanted pregnancies. The rule forces international aid agencies to make a tough choice: Either reject American funds and continue to give women accurate information about their reproductive health options, or accept American funds and deny women information about abortions they may desperately need.

To be clear, the gag rule goes much further than preventing U.S. taxpayer dollars from directly paying for abortions, which is already illegal under the 1973 Helms amendment. Under the gag rule, even NGOs that wish to use their own funds to pay for abortion care and information, while using U.S. grants to support programs that have absolutely nothing to do with abortion, are barred from receiving federal funding. Hypothetically, health care providers are allowed to talk to patients about abortion in the event of rape, incest, or life-threatening complications, but it’s unclear exactly how such exceptions would work once a compliant NGO has eradicated all abortion-related resources from its programming.

Ironically, the gag rule has been shown to increase abortion rates—particularly unsafe abortion rates—in areas that depend heavily on NGOs to provide needed reproductive health care. Clinics often have to close or consolidate when they lose U.S. funding, and the U.S. Agency for International Development is barred from communicating with and sharing resources with clinics that don’t comply with the rule. As a result, women lose access to needed contraception. A 2011 study found that enforcement of the gag rule by the George W. Bush administration led to an increase in abortion rates in sub-Saharan Africa, likely because of lost contraception access. In Ethiopia, where unsafe abortion is the second-leading cause of death after HIV-AIDS, the George W. Bush administration’s enforcement of the gag rule “hampered Ethiopia’s efforts to address high rates of unsafe abortion,” according to a 2010 study.

If Republicans really wanted to reduce international abortion rates, they wouldn’t attach strings to federal family planning funding for NGOs providing crucial resources to impoverished areas. The Trump administration’s insistence on reinstating this disastrous rule is only further proof of its indifference to women’s health, safety, and autonomy.