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
''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in 1984 and rescinded by Bill Clinton in 1993.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
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
''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
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
''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