Biden’s decision to rescind the Global Gag Rule could have implications for the US approach to sexual health and reproductive rights at the UN

by Tess Brennan, Universal Rights Group NYC SRHR, Thematic human rights issues

President Biden repealed the Global Gag Rule, which he described as his ‘predecessor’s attack on women’s health access’, via Executive Order on 28 January. This move comes as part of the administration’s plan to protect the rights of women both domestically and abroad. The decision serves as a key indicator for how the US may re-emerge on the world stage as a State that prioritises protecting the right of women and girls to access necessary health services, as well as safe-guarding them from gender-based violence.

The Mexico City Policy, commonly referred to as the Global Gag Rule, was first introduced by the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s. Since its initial implementation, the rule has been repealed by every Democratic president and reinstated by every Republican, resulting in a 36-year partisan tug-of-war in the US and whiplash globally. The rule prohibits US aid to any foreign non-governmental organisation (NGO) that so much as educates their communities on abortion as part of their family planning services, even if these organisations use other foreign funding for such education or safe abortion practices.

What the gag rule looks like in practice

The provisions of the rule were significantly expanded under the Trump administration. Previously, the Global Gag Rule controlled approximately $600 million in family planning funds. As it stands since it was reinstated in 2017, the rule applies to nearly all bilateral global health assistance, including for the first time: maternal and child health (including water, sanitation, and hygiene), nutrition, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, and global health security. Such expansions encompass nearly $9 billion of US foreign aid.

Human rights advocates have continuously voiced their concerns over the rule. The policy essentially forces organisations to choose between two options: ‘1) take the funding they depend on but deny the services their communities need and have a right to, or 2) refuse US. funding and struggle to keep clinics open, offer services, and advocate for laws that reduce unsafe abortions’. If anything, the policy places more women at risk. A study assessing the impacts of the policy on women in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, found a substantial increase in abortions and a decline in the use of modern contraception in the years that the policy was in effect. Notably, these patterns were reversed when the policy was rescinded. Such findings imply that the adverse effects of this policy likely extend into other areas of women’s safety, such as maternal health. Since losing their US funding in 2017, the MSI Reproductive Choices chapter in Nigeria estimated that they failed to prevent 1.1 million unsafe abortions and 16,000 maternal deaths. Giselle Carino, Chief Executive of the International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region, argues that the gag rule effectively plays ‘politics with women, girls and the most vulnerable populations’.

Under Trump, a push to reverse progress on SRHR at the UN 

The spirit of the Trump administration’s expansion of the gag rule was mirrored in other areas of US foreign policy, including its response to resolutions regarding sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHRs) at the UN. The US began attracting attention during the Third Committee of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly in 2017 for what was described by some as a ‘contentious presence’ when attacking previously agreed upon language on gender and sexual health, launching five hostile amendments in an effort to modify and dilute such verbiage. This trend continued in 2018 and 2019 and, at the 75th Session in 2020, the US presented nine amendments related to SRHRs. The amendments proposed the removal of or dissociation from these rights, which the US argued imply a right or access to abortion. Spain introduced A/C.3/75/L.13/Rev.1: Women and girls and the response to COVID-19 during the 2020 75th Session, to which the US proposed two amendments calling to remove language on health services perceived as promoting access to abortion and to make clear which decisions were ‘adopted by the General Assembly’, rather than by consensus. Both amendments were rejected by vote, and the resolution was passed by consensus.

The actions of the US during the 75th Session were met with a great deal of hostility, in part because the amendments presented by the US delegation ‘challenged informal procedures and long-standing practices on accepting previously agreed upon language’. Other States voiced their frustration over the US attempts to weaken language and undermine consensus on SRHR. Argentina, for example, said ‘We cannot accept any moving backwards.’

Under Biden, a new era for SRHRs?

The Biden administration, however, is already signalling a different approach to SRHRs. Not only was repealing the gag rule part of his administration’s policy commitments, Biden also stated that enacting the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 would be one of his administration’s top priorities during the first 100 days in office. Enacting the VAWA is among other policies that Biden plans to implement in order to better protect the SRHRs of women in the United States.

Protecting the rights of women domestically is important, not only because it is essential for American women and girls, but because it sets an important example globally. Beyond just setting an example, Biden’s nominee for the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield has already made her position on this subject clear. When asked by Senator Jeanne Shaheen during her Senate confirmation hearing on 27 January if she could ‘commit to working to restore American leadership in addressing values around empowering women and helping to ensure that women have access to a full range of reproductive health services’, Greenfield’s responded that she ‘can commit to [being] a leader on this issue [at the UN] in New York. It’s an issue that is personally a priority for me.’

These actions so far, in addition to the Biden administration’s commitment to restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and ‘support its important work in preventing gender-based violence globally’, have potential implications regarding the US decision to rejoin the Human Rights Council and what future engagement with the Council will look like. SRHRs are not confined to the Third Committee alone. Resolutions concerning SRHRs have emerged in the Human Rights Council as well as the Security Council, and the US has, during the Trump administration, attempted to hamper efforts at protecting SRHRs in both. The trajectory of the Biden administration indicates that such efforts are likely to be abandoned in favor of a more welcome approach to protecting these rights. It would behoove the US to do so, as protecting the rights of women and girls contributes to actual gains in improving their lives on the ground and to continuing the effort to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 on gender equality.

Featured photo: ‘Activists from the Population Connection Action Fund hold signs as they project a message onto the Trump International Hotel to protest the Global Gag Rule in Washington on Jan. 23, 2019.’ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

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