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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Obama Reverses 'Global Gag Rule'

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Obama Reverses 'Global Gag Rule'
[Jan. 26, 2009]

President Obama on Friday repealed the "global gag rule," also known as the "Mexico City" Policy, which denies federal funding to international family planning organizations that with their own funds provide abortion services and information, the New York Times reports. Obama said in a written statement that during the past two terms of former President George W. Bush, the policy has "undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries. For these reasons, it is right for us to rescind this policy and restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development." He added that assistance for international family planning "has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of back-and-forth debate that has served only to divide us. I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate" (Baker, New York Times, 1/24). Obama said that he has "directed [his] staff to reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies." His staff also will "work to promote safe motherhood, reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and increase educational and economic opportunities for women and girls" (Levey, Los Angeles Times, 1/24). The policy change by Obama will not impact the amount of funding available to international family planning organizations -- which was about $450 million to more than 65 countries in 2007 -- but will make it available to a greater range of organizations, the Journal reports (Meckler, Wall Street Journal, 1/24).

According to the Journal, Obama also said he would work with Congress to reinstate U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which the Bush administration withheld because the administration said that the funding supported coerced abortion under China's one-child policy. Supporters of UNFPA have said that the group is not involved in China's policy and that there are studies to support these claims. The Journal reports that a total of $235 million since 2002 has been withheld from UNFPA (Meckler, Wall Street Journal, 1/24).

The policy reversal on the "global gag rule" was issued one day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which helped Obama to avoid the "confrontational step" of reversing the policy the same day as the March for Life protest led by abortion opponents, the Washington Post reports. Jim Wallis of the progressive evangelical group Sojourners said that Obama "showed respect for both sides in the historically polarized abortion debate" by not issuing the order on the anniversary of Roe and "called for both a new conversation and a new common ground." Wallis also said that he "hope[s] that this important gesture signals the beginning of a new approach and a new path toward finding some real solutions to decrease the number of abortions in this country and around the world" (Stein/Shear, Washington Post, 1/24).

Abortion-rights advocates were "energized" by the policy reversal, the New York Times reports. Tod Preston, a vice president at Population Action International, said that Obama's "actions will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, abortions and women dying from high-risk pregnancies because they don't have access to family planning." Steven Sinding, a former director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and population adviser to the World Bank, said it is a "great day" for those who oppose abortion because the policy change "will help many of the most effective providers of family planning services to enable women to avoid unwanted pregnancies" (New York Times, 1/24). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, "Women throughout the world can breathe a sigh of relief and gain access to a full range of family planning services" (Los Angeles Times, 1/24). Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said that Obama has "lifted the stranglehold on women's health across the globe" and that the policy change "ends eight long years of policies that have blocked access to basic health care for women worldwide" (Wall Street Journal, 1/24).

The New York Times reports that abortion opponents "condemned" the policy reversal, "calling it an unnecessarily divisive way for a president preaching unity to start his administration." Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the House Bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, said that Obama "will be remembered forever not just as a smart, savvy, gifted and eloquent leader -- but as the Abortion President." Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said the order was the first in an "anticipated series of attacks on longstanding pro-life policies." The effect of the policy change will be to redirect federal funding "away from groups that do not promote abortion and into the hands of those organizations that are the most aggressive in promoting abortion in developing countries," he said (New York Times, 1/24).

Vatican officials on Saturday also released statements expressing their disappointment with Obama's executive order, the AP/Yahoo! News reports. Monsignor Rino Fisichella, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, said that "if this is one of [Obama's] first acts" as president, "we're heading quickly toward disappointment." He added that Obama should listen to all sides of the abortion debate without "the arrogance of those who, being in power, believe they can decide of life and death." Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, another top official with the Academy for Life, said that the order "deals a harsh blow not only to us Catholics but to all the people across the world who fight against the slaughter of innocents that is carried out with the abortion" (AP/Yahoo! News, 1/24).

Christian Science Monitor Examines Effect of Obama's Family Planning Policies on Global Economy

In related news, the Christian Science Monitor on Monday examined Obama's family planning policies and their effect on the economy. According to the Monitor, Obama's policies on family planning could deter an increase in the global population while improving economic stability.

The Monitor reports that five former directors of USAID earlier this month expressed support for raising U.S. contributions to foreign family planning and reproductive health entities to $1.2 billion. According to the Monitor, Obama was among 12 senators to sign a letter in July that called for an increase in U.S. family planning aid to $1 billion. Tod Preston, vice president of Population Action International, said he hopes the repeal of the "Mexico City" Policy will lead to increased contributions to the United Nations Population Fund. According to UNPFA estimates, universal access to family planning could prevent 175,000 maternal deaths annually and 1.8 million deaths among children younger than age five. David Paxson, head of the World Population Balance, said the current global population cannot be sustained long-term, adding, "If Obama wants to go down in history as a great president, he should help bring people to an awareness of this population problem" (Francis, Christian Science Monitor, 1/26).

Related Editorial

In related news, a New York Times editorial writes that Obama's reversal of the "global gag" rule is a "reassuring message" that the president "takes seriously his duty to safeguard women's lives and basic rights, including free speech and the choice of whether to bear a child." The editorial writes that Bush reinstated the policy "in toughened form" in 2001, which "seriously disrupted the best quality and most accessible family planning services in poor countries." It adds that Obama's executive order "will mean fewer deaths from unsafe illegal abortions." The editorial concludes that it "trust[s] these policy changes mark a good start toward a larger shift that will see the Obama administration undo the full range of Republican attacks on reproductive freedom" (New York Times, 1/24).