Greatest Hits: The Global Gag Rule is Killing Women

Originally posted on December 8, 2006.

The United States’ policy of denying reproductive health funding to any organization that so much as mentions abortion — by petitioning their own government for reproductive rights, performing abortions with their own non-U.S. money, referring women to abortion providers, or even telling women that abortion is an option — is contributing to “shockingly high death and disability rates in developing countries.”

Now there’s something for pro-lifers to be proud of.

Approximately 500 000 women die each year of causes related to pregnancy, abortion and childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries, according to the World Health Organisation.

“These deaths would not be tolerated in other circumstances,” says Dorothy Shaw, senior associate dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Countries are failing in their responsibilities and promises to fund sexual and reproductive health programmes, including supporting universal access to contraception, Shaw says. Contraception alone would dramatically reduce abortion rates, she says.

“More than 68 000 women die every year from back-alley or self-induced abortions,” notes Janie Benson, vice-president of research and evaluation at Ipas, an NGO focused on increasing women’s ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and preventing unsafe abortions worldwide.

Many of the 20-million women who have unsafe abortions each year suffer from medical complications — some for the rest of their lives, Benson says. “This is a preventable pandemic,” she emphasises.


These deaths are tolerated because they’re poor women in developing nations. “Pro-life” activists and politicians are perfectly happy to sacrifice the lives and bodies of those women in order to promote their political agenda. And when you present definitive evidence that their policies are killing people — and there is no shortage of such evidence — they stick their fingers in their ears and simply pretend not to hear you.

It certainly is a preventable pandemic. In places where abortion is legal, it’s one of the safest medical procedures around — safer than taking penicillin, and safer than childbirth. Legalizing abortion also doesn’t have much of an effect on the abortion rate — South Africa is one example that the article cites. Also consider that the abortion rate in Brazil, where the procedure is illegal, is higher than the abortion rate in the United States. And the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world are the ones where the procedure is not only safe and legal, but widely available, affordable, and sometimes even free. How do they do it? Widely available and affordable contraception; cultural values that don’t demonize sexual activity, but recognize it as a natural part of the human condition and therefore something that we should all take responsibility for; and comprehensive sexual health education. To quote something our fine president never said (but certainly could have), “It’s not rocket surgery.”

But it’s not just pro-choice activists who oppose the Gag Rule. No, the conclusion that the United States is aiding in the deaths, injuries and infections of millions of women world-wide, and that changing our international policy would do the world a whole lot of good, is supported by a series of six studies conducted by the World Health Organization, which will be published in the British medical journal Lancet this week.

The destructiveness of US policy is hard to understate, says Steven Sinding, former director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

The IPPF lost $15-million in funding because of this policy, known as the “gag rule” because it stifles free speech and public debate on abortion-related issues. “Three of the five family planning facilities supported by IPPF in Kenya were forced to close as a result,” Sinding says.

The direct consequences of those closures were “a dramatic rise in unsafe abortions and substantial increase in unwanted pregnancies”, he says.

“The US stands embarrassingly alone on this,” agrees Stan Bernstein, senior policy adviser at the United Nations Millennium Project. “No other country supports denying access to sexual and reproductive health services over issues around abortion.”

Every other country recognizes that women deserve access to healthcare, whether or not they make decisions we agree with (decisions that, were they U.S. residents, would be perfectly legal). Every other country recognizes that giving people faulty information about their sexual health, telling them that abstinence or marriage are the only valid choices, limiting their access to contraception, emphasizing the failure rates of condoms, and then pushing for abortion to be limited or outlawed is a deadly combination. Every other country recognizes that a woman shouldn’t have to choose between a pregnancy she doesn’t want or her life. We, on the other hand, are the proud nation who coined the international policy ideology of “Let the sluts die.”

I’ll put it out there again:

Because reproductive health care clinics often provide multiple services, the gag rule has further resulted in increasing maternal mortality and cutting off access to pre-natal and well-baby care. About a third of women worldwide receive no pre-natal care, and 60 percent of births take place outside of hospitals.

In some of the poorest countries like Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, it is estimated that up to 50 percent of maternal mortalities result from unsafe, illegal abortions. In sub-Saharan Africa, 920 women die for every 100,000 live births. The number for Europe, on the other hand, is 24.

Increasing access to contraception for all the women who want it could prevent 22 million abortions, 23 million unplanned births, and 1.4 million infant deaths. $3.9 billion dollars — less than four days of the Pentagon’s budget — could prevent 142,000 pregnancy-related deaths annually.

The entire issue is summed up quite well by Janie Benson, vice-president of research and evaluation at Ipas: “We need governments to decide that women’s lives are worth saving.”


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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7 Responses to Greatest Hits: The Global Gag Rule is Killing Women

  1. noen says:

    Understandably horrible. I suppose that one silver lining would be if it mobilized people to rise in opposition. Perhaps in addition to creating a generation that rejects right-wing rule here in the US this administration will do us the same favor around the world. So if one is looking for a reason to hope I guess that might be one.

  2. Saros says:

    The pentagon spends a billion bucks a day? Ouch, im glad im not a US taxpayer.
    Stats like that really make you wonder about the priorities of modern governments.

  3. Miller says:

    Pro-“lifers” will just say that women and girls can avoid this by being sexually responsible or stop “asking” for rape. If a woman dies because the pregnancy itself kills her they’ll just say it’s God’s will.

    Check out the article from The Independent: Amnesty to defy Catholic church over rape victims’ abortion rights. Amnesty decided to act due to the rape sprees in Darfur.
    http://news.independent.co.uk/world/politics/article2859077.ece

    On another note: Did anyone else read Freakonomics? The authors claimed that the huge decrease in violent crime in America was a direct result of access to legal abortions. Simply those who would have committed those crimes were not born. I realize that abortion should be considered a basic human right (freedom to exercise sovereignty over your being), but could this not be another way to fundamentally destroy the whole concept of anti-choice being considered pro-“life?”

  4. Danyell says:

    The global gag rule is so depressing, I don’t even know what to say. But what can we do? I’m literally asking: what can we, as citizens do to help fix this problem?

  5. About a third of women worldwide receive no pre-natal care, and 60 percent of births take place outside of hospitals.

    I have a quick question about this. Does it mean over all 60% of the women worldwide having births outside hospitals, or just in areas where the mortality rates are so high? I ask because ther are many countries where it is odd for a healthy woman to give birth in a hospital. Putting the American idea that birth can only occur under the eye of a doctor would skew the results some by not taking into account the areas where women choose not to have hospital births, a choice that is perfectly safe and in some cases safer than a hospital choice. Comparing women in areas where homebirth is choosen more often to those areas where it is not a choice or not a good choice skews the results some.

    Over-all the global gag rule makes me, well, gag. I wonder if anyone has asked any of the presidential hopefuls what their take on it is and if they would work to remove it.

  6. Sabrina says:

    you would think numbers like this would horrify “pro-life” supporters. it seems the only lives worth saving are the ones that have yet to be born. the crazy thing is pro-lifers won’t even listen to numbers like this. they’ll just scream at you that abortion is murder. it seems to me that the women who are dying because of a lack of access to pre-natal care or to safe and legal abortions are the ones being murdered.

  7. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Support Reproductive Justice on Roe Day - CommonDreams.org

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