It is not surprising but it is deeply depressing that the Trump administration is reviving the “global gag rule” — so called because it bans U.S. financial assistance to nongovernmental healthcare organizations in foreign countries if they provide abortions or even utter the word to their patients in counseling them or referring them elsewhere.
The rule was first put into place during the Reagan administration and since then has been repealed and revived alternately by Democratic and Republican administrations, including President Obama’s.
The rule was bad enough in its earlier form, when it barred aid to family planning organizations that offered abortion or abortion counseling. The last time it was in place, during the George W. Bush administration, family planning organizations receiving $600 million in funding were affected.
But the new Trump administration incarnation of the rule is far more expansive. Instead of applying specifically to family planning programs, it will now cover approximately $8.8 billion in funds given out to healthcare providers of all sorts through the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Defense Department. Healthcare providers overseas working in HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, malaria, global health security and other fields will be required to sign the agreement. And many of those providers also offer abortion or abortion counseling.
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The rule creates particular problems for healthcare providers treating people with HIV and AIDS. Signing the agreement would mean, for example, never being able to give a pregnant woman infected with HIV counseling on abortion.
State Department officials say that the gag rule is necessary to ensure that U.S. tax dollars do not support foreign organizations that “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning.”
But there is already a law in place that prohibits the use of U.S. funds for abortions. So the gag rule is not necessary for that. It’s just a way to pressure — and ultimately punish — organizations that provide abortions or abortion counseling.
Worse yet, the rule threatens to cripple the provision of healthcare to underserved, wretchedly poor parts of the world.
For healthcare organizations to stop providing abortions would be neither easy nor the right thing to do. In many places, one clinic serves multiple functions — taking care of women and children, treating HIV, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, offering family planning and contraceptives and sometimes abortions or abortion counseling — all important functions.
So providers are faced with a horrible choice: either refuse to provide patients with necessary information or important reproductive rights services, or sacrifice desperately needed funding from the United States.
The State Department says that if current recipients of U.S. funding decline to take any further aid because of the new policy, it will find other organizations to provide the non-abortion-related healthcare services. But healthcare advocates say it won’t be easy to find other providers in the developing world to pick up the slack.
In the end, it’s possible that this policy will result in more abortions, not fewer. Stanford University researchers found that abortions significantly increased in Africa when the gag rule was in effect during the George W. Bush administration, perhaps because of lost funding for programs offering contraceptives and family planning counseling.
If the administration cares about protecting life, it should scrap this policy immediately.
A longer version of this editorial was originally published by the Los Angeles Times.