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Volume 18, Number 2, 2015


Social Conservatives Ramp Up Efforts to Re-Impose the
Global Gag Rule and Defund UNFPA, Posing
Real Obstacles to Program’s Effectiveness
Attempts by social conservatives to curb U.S. international family planning assistance by re-imposing the global gag rule and defunding the UN Population Fund are back. Considering that the U.S. Senate is more ideologically aligned with the House than in the past, it is now less certain that the Senate can be relied upon to defeat these attacks, as it has done every year since 2011 when social conservatives took control of the House and began writing these restrictions into the annual spending bill for international family planning programs.

Reinstating the global gag rule or defunding UNFPA would be devastating. And even if these anti-family planning attacks fail again, the threat of their return alone is already limiting the effectiveness of this important U.S. foreign assistance program, warns a new analysis in the Guttmacher Policy Review.

“Social conservatives in the U.S. Congress are not just antiabortion but increasingly anti-family planning,” says Guttmacher policy expert and lead author Sneha Barot. “The harmful policies these lawmakers are pursuing are based on falsehoods, and they are strongly opposed by the administration and pro-family planning members of Congress. However, the concern is that proponents of these regressive policies could force the administration to reluctantly accept one or both in the course of the inevitable political horse-trading that accompanies larger pieces of legislation.”

The U.S. effort to help women in the world’s poorest countries better plan and space their pregnancies is a tremendous foreign aid and public health success story. At a total cost of only $610 million (including $35 million for UNFPA), the program currently enables 28 million women and couples to receive contraceptive services and supplies, thereby averting six million unintended pregnancies, 2.4 million induced abortions (most of them unsafe) and 12,000 maternal deaths.

However, this effort may fall short of its potential impact depending on political interference from social conservatives in Congress. Beyond proposing deep funding cuts to the effort overall, anti-family planning lawmakers are using must-pass legislation to reinstate two harmful policies:
  • The Global Gag Rule: Also known as the Mexico City Policy, it was first instituted by the Reagan administration in 1984; it is usually in effect during Republican administrations and rescinded by Democratic ones. The policy bars foreign NGOs from receiving U.S. family planning assistance if they use non-U.S. funds to provide abortion services, counseling or referrals, or engage in advocacy within their own countries to liberalize abortion-related policies. The Helms amendment already prohibits U.S. foreign aid from funding abortions in most circumstances.

    There is no evidence that the global gag rule has ever resulted in its stated aim of reducing abortion; to the contrary, evidence suggests that it may have had the opposite effect through widespread disruption of efforts to help women in developing countries avoid unintended pregnancies.
  • Defunding UNFPA: The UN Population Fund provides global leadership in a range of crucial areas, including family planning, maternal and newborn health, campaigns against child marriage and female genital mutilation, and assistance during disasters. Just as the global gag rule has come and gone repeatedly since the mid-1980s, so has the U.S. contribution to UNFPA.

    U.S. social conservatives falsely claim that UNFPA’s presence in China indirectly supports that country’s coercive one-child policy. However, investigators dispatched by the Bush administration in 2002 found no evidence that UNFPA was in violation of the anticoercion law; the Bush administration nevertheless cut off funding on essentially trumped-up charges. Further, U.S. law already bars UNFPA from spending U.S. funds in China, so withholding funds serves only to punish other countries.
Barot points to Nepal as one country already negatively affected by just the potential return of these harmful policies: A well-regarded Nepali NGO is refusing to accept U.S. funding or partner with U.S.-funded NGOs, citing the serious disruptions to their work that a return of the global gag rule would bring. The inability to work with effective local groups limits the overall impact of U.S. aid to Nepal and other poor countries.

“Vital global health funding should not be a political football,” says Barot. “It’s disturbing that reinstating the global gag rule and cutting off U.S. funding for UNFPA are still being contemplated. The justification for both these policies is grounded in misinformation—and there is zero evidence that either one of them is effective in achieving its purported goal.”

To counter the chilling effect of the global gag rule even when it is not in place, proponents of U.S. international family planning assistance have gone on the offense in recent years, starting with the Global Democracy Promotion Act (GDPA), which would prevent future presidents from bringing back the global gag rule with the stroke of a pen. However, Barot writes, there is little chance the GDPA will pass with social conservatives controlling Congress.

Read the full article: “The Global Gag Rule and Fights over Funding UNFPA: The Issues that Won’t Go Away,” by Sneha Barot and Susan A. Cohen

For more information:

Research: Just the Numbers: The Impact of U.S. International Family Planning Assistance
Policy Analysis: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Are Key to Global Development: The Case for Ramping Up Investment

The Guttmacher Institute works to advance sexual and reproductive health in the United States and worldwide through an interrelated program of social science research, policy analysis and public education designed to generate new ideas, encourage enlightened public debate and promote sound policy and program development. Learn more at

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