In an attempt Thursday night to end a two-week government shutdown, House Democrats passed a spending bill that put one of President Donald Trump's most stringent anti-abortion policies in its crosshairs: the global gag rule, a law enacted by executive order, which gets reinstated every time a new Republican president takes office.
The policy cuts off United States funding to any international organizations that provide abortion services, or even suggest abortion as a viable option to their patients. Trump put the global gag rule back into effect on the third day of his presidency and expanded it beyond his Republican predecessors' versions by revoking funds from all US agencies, rather than just those from the United States Agency for International Development, as was typical.
Democrats' legislation wouldn't scrap the policy altogether, but it would allow groups that promote abortion—but don't perform abortions themselves—to receive government funding again. Specifically, the provision states that international orgs would "not be ineligible for" federal aid "solely on the basis of health or medical services, including counseling and referral services," according to BuzzFeed News.
Because Republicans still have a majority in the Senate, and because it's unlikely Trump would sign off on a spending bill rolling back a policy he implemented himself, it's a near guarantee that the legislation will fail. Still, global reproductive health advocates say they're encouraged that lawmakers have brought attention to a policy that has been quietly at work in the lives of women around the world—to their detriment, they say—for the last two years. They've seen some of the consequences firsthand.
"There are programs that lose US aid and shut down immediately, which means women and girls lose our services right away," Kimberley Lufkin, the head of US communications at Marie Stopes International, tells Broadly.
Since Trump's January 2017 executive order, Lufkin says Marie Stopes has shuttered its entire Madagascar voucher program which delivered reproductive services to people living in extreme poverty, ended five outreach teams in Uganda, and cut the number of outreach sites in Zimbabwe from 1,200 to 700.
She says the unreliable nature of US funding has made it difficult to keep staff on and build toward long-term goals for women's reproductive health. But worse yet, the organization's close attention to how many women and girls it serves and the care they receive makes her well aware of the deleterious implications of these lapses in funding. Lufkin says its data and analytics team has helped determine that Trump's gag rule could result in roughly 2.1 million unintended pregnancies, 720,000 unsafe abortions, and 5,600 avoidable maternal deaths by the time his term is up in 2020.
In a Wednesday statement to BuzzFeed News, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony List, called the global gag rule a "successful pro-life policy."
"The worst part of it is we know exactly what this policy did," Brian Dixon, the senior vice president of media and governmental relations at Population Connection, tells Broadly. "Even if you take proponents of the policy at their word—that it reduces abortions—it's an abject failure at that."
Dixon spearheads a campaign called Fight4HER that aims to permanently ban the global gag rule. The campaign organizes activists across eight states, raising awareness around the recurring attack on global reproductive rights and lobbying for legislation to end it. Two of the biggest proponents of abolishing the policy for good, Dixon says, have been New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaeen and New York Representative Nita Lowey, Democrats who have made their own legislative attempts to do so.
Efforts to end the global gag rule have been met with some Republican support in the past. In their Thursday legislation, Democrats point out that Republican members of a Senate committee had offered unanimous backing for the same provision banning the policy just last year. Dixon says he hopes to see more bipartisan support with the new Congress.
"We know it's not really about abortion—it's about undermining women's autonomy and denying them access to economic opportunities," Dixon says. "The US ought to be on the side of empowerment, not against it. That girls and women have access to reproductive health care is key to that."