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'Global Gag Rule' Faces Legal Challenge
Published on Thursday, June 7, 2001 by Inter Press Service
George W. Bush's America
'Global Gag Rule' Faces Legal Challenge
by Jim Lobe
 
WASHINGTON - Opening a new front in the battle to promote international women's rights, a prominent US group filed a lawsuit Wednesday against President George W. Bush for curbing the free-speech rights of overseas groups which provide reproductive health services to women.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP) claims that by barring all US aid from foreign health groups which provide abortion services or lobby their governments to ease anti- abortion laws, Bush is violating CRLP's freedoms of expression and association guaranteed under the US constitution's first amendment.

''President Bush took away my right to speak because I support a position with which he disagrees: that access to safe and legal abortion is a human right of women worldwide,'' said Janet Benshoof, CRLP's president. ''The global gag rule is global censorship that violates fairness, freedom, and democracy.''

The lawsuit, which is backed by several major US human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, targets an executive order put out by Bush in late January on only his second day in office.

Called the ''global gag rule'' by its foes, the order re-imposed the so-called ''Mexico City Policy'' proclaimed by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and rescinded by Bill Clinton in 1993. The rule has long been a top priority of the US anti-abortion movement and Christian Right.

Those forces, which are particularly strong in the Republican-led House of Representatives, fought Clinton to a draw on the issue in the late 1990's, when they made reinstatement of the rule a condition for paying US arrears to the United Nations.

They mustered a razor-thin majority to affirm the policy in a House vote last month. But the Senate, now under Democratic leadership, is expected to reject it when it takes up the 2002 foreign aid bill later this summer. Its fate will eventually have to be hashed out in negotiations between the two chambers and Bush, unless the courts throw it out.

Washington, the world's single biggest bilateral funder of population programs for poor countries, contributes on average more than 400 million dollars a year, much of which is provided directly by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and to private, non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Under a 1972 law, these groups have been forbidden from using any USAID money they receive to actually perform abortions. But the Mexico City Policy went a step further, by barring them from receiving any US aid money if they performed abortions, lobbied their governments to ease antiabortion laws, or even provide medical referrals for abortions, even if they used only their own money to do so.

The result is that about ten overseas NGOs, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), have been denied millions of dollars in US funding, although many more, less powerful and less well-endowed overseas NGOs have accepted the US aid and the Mexico City conditions which come with it.

''The global gag rule forces health care organizations to make an immoral choice: either give up desperately needed funds for family planning and other reproductive health care services, or give up their right to free speech and to provide patients with full and accurate medical information,'' according to CRLP, which works closely with overseas NGOs in promoting the reproductive rights of women.

''In Peru, where abortion is illegal and maternal mortality rates are the third highest in the region, clinic doctors and hospitals ignore bleeding women who need post-abortion care because they're afraid of losing US funding.'' noted Julia Ernst, CRLP's international legislative counsel.

The lawsuit argues that the rule has a chilling effect on recipient NGOs who feel they cannot afford to participate in the public debates in their countries over reproductive rights and abortion - or even to provide information to CRLP - without risking their access to US aid funds.

''Many foreign organizations can no longer work in partnership with my organization, cannot attend events at the United Nations at which we are speaking, cannot meet with us and provide us information about the situation in their own country,'' said Benshoof.

As a result, the CRLP's ability to pursue abortion-law reform in other countries or even to alert the US public about reproductive- rights issues abroad is made much more difficult by the rule, affecting its rights to free speech and association under both the US Constitution and international human-rights law.

''We are doing this to establish that the US government cannot restrict the speech of American human rights advocates working in the United States or overseas,'' said Benshoof. ''American citizens' First Amendment rights are 'without borders.'''

In several cases, overseas groups have declined to appear at public forums with CRLP or have curtailed its participation at local events for fear of losing access to US aid, according to the complaint, which was filed in federal court in New York Wednesday.

The rule is also fundamentally unfair, says CRLP, which has never received US funding. Even where abortion is legal, CRLP's foreign partners are forbidden to speak out about abortion rights, while groups working to criminalize abortion or increase restrictions on access to abortion in poor countries will not be denied US aid.

The lawsuit enjoys the backing of several major human rights groups.

''Governments should not impede non-violent advocates of public policy from adding their voices to the international marketplace of ideas,'' according to Michael Posner, the director of the Lawyers Committee, who filed an affidavit with the court..

''When a US-based NGO seeks to change US policies that infringe on international human rights norms, such as restrictions on freedom of speech and association, they must not be restricted in their ability to gain and publicize evidence of the impact of such policies from NGOs in other countries,'' he said.

''In over 38 years of experience in the human rights field, (this) is the only time I have encountered US censorship promoting law reform through democratic processes,'' wrote Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute and a founder and former director of Human Rights Watch.

''The entire human rights movement relies on the ability of NGOs like CRLP to gather information and speak without impediment and to associate freely with foreign NGOs to increase the effectiveness of their speech and advocacy,'' Neier added.

Copyright 2001 IPS

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