On January 22, his second day in office and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade,
President George W. Bush restored in full an executive order banning
U.S.-funded international organizations from even talking about abortion.
Spun as an "anti-abortion" action, in fact it was an attack on free speech.
(Federal funding for abortion has been illegal since 1973.) But even as Bush
was gagging women and doctors around the globe, he was giving voice to
theocrats here at home.
What could the gag order mean for health providers and their clients?
Consider Peru, where abortion is illegal and both a woman who ends a
pregnancy and the person who performs her abortion can be punished. At the
same time, vast numbers of women are without contraception, sex education
and basic reproductive services. Under a previous incarnation of the gag
order, Peruvian feminists had to choose between a large U.S. grant to give
reproductive health services to thousands of poor, rural women and young
people, and their organization's right to advocate for what they believe is
best for all Peruvians - a change in the country's antiabortion law.
Painfully, they chose the muzzle.
Although Bush has indicated he'll support the existing $425 million
allocation for worldwide family planning services, Adrienne Germain of the
International Women's Health Coalition is fearful that the U.S. Agency for
International Development could impose new restrictions on how the money is
A week after his declaration on the so-called global gag rule, Bush
announced the formation of a White House Office on Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives. Its agenda: to move more public sector jobs into private
religious hands and, not coincidentally, to permit the flow of more federal
dollars to religious groups, including those that push the pro-life cause.
Church groups, Bush says, deserve a chance to compete for taxpayer money for
after-school programs, prison ministries and drug treatment, among other
things. To that end, he says, the Republican administration will make
"billions" of dollars available for charitable groups that meet social
needs. "When we see social needs in America," Bush announced, "my
administration will look first to faith-based programs and community
Rev. Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal, an ecumenical anti-poverty group, is
willing to give Bush a chance. At a meeting in Texas shortly before Bush's
inauguration, Wallis told him, "Why don't you surprise us?"
There's little room for surprise. Bush's plans expand a Clinton-era program
pushed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft (whom Pat Robertson indicated he would
name as attorney general when he ran for president in 1988). Called
"charitable choice," the program, which was written into the Personal
Responsibility Act of 1996, bars the government from discriminating against
religious institutions that apply for federal money to do welfare-related
programs, including job search and training programs, maternity homes,
abstinence education, drug treatment and health clinics.
In a triumphant December 1996 memo to the right-wing Christian Legal
Society, Ashcroft answered questions about whether government money might
bring with it unwelcome government oversight. Ashcroft reassured his
supporters that the law safeguards their right to carry out religious
practices on site, including prayer meetings: "Charitable choice
incorporates specific protections for their autonomy and religious character
with regard to their right to develop, maintain and express their religious
beliefs; to maintain their chosen form of internal governance; to operate
their personnel policy in accordance with religious convictions; to maintain
a religious environment; and to confine external fiscal audits by
segregating federal funds in separate accounts." (The latter is a right
forbidden family planning groups under the gag rule.)
As an indication of how he will enforce the law as attorney general,
Ashcroft added: "Beneficiaries, by coming to faith-based groups for services
may be deemed to have consented to the religious characteristics and
practices of a provider from whom they accept service."
Tell that to the thousands of women in communities where their only
accessible hospital has been taken over by a Catholic conglomerate and now
no longer offers family planning advice or any form of abortion help.
Indeed, in remarks to leaders of Catholic charities on January 31, Bush, not
realizing his words were being recorded, linked his faith-based social
services initiative to his goal of curtailing abortion rights.
As for civil rights, under a special provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,
religious organizations are permitted to discriminate on the basis of their
religious beliefs and teachings about race, religion, sexual orientation,
gender and pregnancy status. Look for employment discrimination to increase
as more religious institutions receive federal funds. Already, the Kentucky
Baptist Homes for Children, which receives federal funding, is being sued
for firing one if its counselors after a picture of her at a gay rights
parade appeared in a photography exhibit at a country fair.
Welcome to theocracy. It's enough to make you gag.
"The Laura Flanders Show,"
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