On January 22—the twenty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade—here’s how George W. Bush celebrated his first full working day as president of the United States: he directed the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to reinstate President Reagan’s “Mexico City Policy,” known by activists as the “Global Gag Rule.” “It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad,” he wrote.
Well, George W. got it wrong—again. In 1973, Senator Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) passed a law that prevents the use of U.S. taxpayer monies for the funding of abortions or abortion counseling abroad. What the Global Gag Rule does is strong-arm family planning groups into silence by threatening to withhold much-needed U.S. funds if they in any way support a woman’s right to choose. The rule goes so far as to prohibit international groups from using their own funds to provide abortions or abortion counseling, even if the procedure is legal in their country. Furthermore, the gag rule absolutely forbids foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from lobbying or advocating for abortion-law reform. Although the overall policy isn’t new, Bush’s version has an insidious addition: it does not “gag” anti-choice groups abroad or place restrictions on the use of taxpayer monies to fund them.
This is a crucial departure from a version of the rule issued by President Clinton in 1999. Clinton reinstated the gag rule for one year in exchange for Republican approval of overdue payments to the United Nations, which was threatening to repeal U.S. voting power. Clinton’s version gagged both pro- and anti-choice groups. Bush, on the other hand, is openly silencing pro-choice groups while giving free rein to the international anti-choice movement. This comes at a time when U.S. anti-choice groups are the most well-funded and well-organized they have ever been. In recent years, activists say this has resulted in an unprecedented collaboration between the U.S. and international anti-choice movements. And with Bush’s determination to fund religious groups-many of which are anti-choice—this latest reinstatement of the gag rule is set to become the most profound silencing of choice to date. To Anika Rahman, director of the International Program of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP), a pro-choice lobby based in the U.S., the gag rule is a basic affront to free speech. “People need to know,” she says, “that not only is the rule anti-women, it is profoundly anti-democratic.”
Not that Bush seems worried about being undemocratic. In March, a group of seven U.S. senators, led by Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), declared that they would challenge Bush’s gag rule. The senators tried to overturn the rule using the Congressional Review Act, which provides legislators an opportunity to review any government agency rule. One week later, Bush reissued the gag rule as a presidential memorandum, making it immune to congressional review.
Bush’s determination to block any repeal of the rule doesn’t surprise Susana Galdos Silva, cofounder of Peru’s Manuela Ramos organization, which uses USAID money to maintain ReproSalud, a grassroots family planning network. “The [Global Gag Rule] is a racist, oppressive policy in that it tells poor countries that they can’t think or speak freely about issues that are crucial to their well-being,” she says. “Today it’s ‘if you want our money, don’t talk about abortion.’ Tomorrow, what will it be? Don’t talk about discrimination? Don’t talk about homosexuality? Don’t talk about democracy? We need to be able to speak freely in order to promote change.'”
In places like Peru, where abortion is illegal except in the case of grave risk to the mother’s health, the momentum of activists seeking to modify the laws to include exceptions for rape and incest survivors has