The Anti-Choice Roots of the Global Gag Rule
The Global Gag Rule is a brainchild of the U.S. anti-choice movement, and one of the first expansions of domestic abortion battles into the global health space.
Also known as the Mexico City Policy, it was first announced in 1984 by the administration of President Ronald Reagan at the International Conference on Population in Mexico City. As the first president elected on an anti-choice party platform, Reagan felt compelled to deliver the movement a victory, at any cost. At the conference, the U.S. allied itself with the Vatican, Iran, Libya, Syria and Sudan in opposing women’s access to abortion information and services.
Broken down, the Global Gag Rule, in its original form, contained three basic restrictions. First, it withheld U.S. family planning funding and technical assistance from foreign NGOs — including reproductive health organizations, private hospitals and clinics — that performed or promoted abortions. Second, the policy forbade NGOs that received U.S. funding from advocating for liberalization or decriminalization of abortion in their countries. Third, in countries where abortion was permitted, the policy prohibited health workers at NGOs that received U.S. funding from offering abortion as an option or referring women to an abortion provider.
The Global Gag Rule’s impact was extensive. It went beyond telling organizations how they can use U.S. aid money, and restricted how they spent their own funds if they wanted to be eligible for U.S. family planning assistance. In many cases, the policy forbade health workers from counseling women on all legal pregnancy options. And most importantly, it put women’s health at risk—hurting trusted providers, cutting basic services, and forcing women to risk their lives with unregulated, unsafe abortions.
When the Global Gag Rule was announced, PAI staff sprang into action. At the Mexico City conference, Joe Speidel and Sharon Camp, who were both Vice Presidents at PAI, gave up to a dozen interviews a day explaining the policy and condemning it as an attack on women’s health.
It was clear that women in the developing world would suffer. Two of the biggest family planning providers, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International, refused to comply and were suddenly ineligible for U.S. funding.
“PAI was there on the ground responding directly to this — let’s face it, it was an attack on the international family planning program.”
To investigate the early effects of the policy during the Reagan administration, Sharon Camp traveled to a dozen countries on all continents. What she found was disturbing. In places where abortion was already legal, like Turkey, organizations were forced to curtail critical training for doctors on safe abortion techniques because the programs had been partially funded by the U.S. In India, many leading family planning organizations and health care providers simply closed down after losing U.S. support.