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Enough to Make You Gag
Published in the March 5, 2001 issue of In These Times
Enough to Make You Gag
by Laura Flanders
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 spent.

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 groups."

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," Monday-Friday, 9-Noon, MT. (11- 2pm, EST, 8-11 am PST.) 1490 KWAB and
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