'A Win for Reproductive Freedom': Rights Advocates Applaud After Biden Rescinds Global Gag Rule

Melissa Simpson holds up her arm with "My Body My Choice" written on it during a protest against recently passed abortion ban bills at the Georgia State Capitol building, on May 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

'A Win for Reproductive Freedom': Rights Advocates Applaud After Biden Rescinds Global Gag Rule

Advocates are also urging the president and Congress to go further to protect and expand rights and access to reproductive healthcare.

Reproductive rights advocates praised U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday after he rescinded the global gag rule, which blocks foreign organizations that provide information, referrals, or services for abortion, or advocate for decriminalization or expanding access, from receiving federal government funding.

Initially implemented by former President Ronald Reagan as the Mexico City policy, the anti-choice rule was reinstated and expanded by former President Donald Trump. Biden's executive order reversing Trump's position was celebrated by rights advocates and healthcare providers worldwide, as were related moves.

Biden also signaled he would reinstate funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and signed a memorandum directing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take immediate action regarding the the Trump-era domestic gag rule that restricted Title X family planning funding.

"Today's actions of rescinding the global gag rule and taking the important first step of undoing the harmful domestic gag rule are critical for patients accessing healthcare in the U.S. and around the world," said Physicians for Reproductive Health president and CEO Dr. Jamila Perritt in a statement Thursday.

"The domestic gag rule forbidding discussion of abortion put Title X providers in an untenable position--withhold vital information and violate professional ethics or leave the program," Perritt said. "Pregnant people need accurate information about their options and referrals right away. No one should be denied information, no matter where they're receiving care, their source of insurance, their income, or the healthcare services needed--especially time-sensitive care like pregnancy care."

In a series of tweets, Planned Parenthood Action detailed the devastating impact of the global gag rule and applauded Biden's latest actions:

Dr. Manisha Kumar, head of the Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) task force on safe abortion care, said in a statement that while her organization does not accept U.S. government funding, its doctors have witnessed the policy's harmful effects. As Kumar explained:

The global gag rule does not reduce the number of abortions that take place. Restricting access to abortion only pushes women to resort to unsafe abortion methods...

We've seen women who have used pens, broken glass, or sticks to try to induce an abortion. We've seen women who drank chlorine or poisons. We have treated women who received medicines from private pharmacies but weren't given the correct pills, or the right information or appropriate support they needed. These are examples of what women will turn to when they don't have access to safe abortion care.

We can only guess how many women lost their lives over the last several years because access to this essential healthcare was cut off. And we know that policies such as the global gag rule disproportionately affect Black women and women of color.

Kumar added that rescinding the rule is "just a first step," pointing out that "millions of women still don't have access to safe abortion care because of restrictive laws, cost, stigma, a lack of trained providers, or other unnecessary barriers." She also expressed hope that the U.S. government "will start using its wealth and power to actually expand rather than restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services."

Evelyne Opondo, Africa director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, was similarly hopeful in comments about the policy change to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's very, very good news. It sends a strong message that reproductive rights are human rights," she said. "I'm hoping this will allow many clinics to reopen across Africa and save thousands of women's lives."

Stateside, advocates similarly applauded the president's action while also emphasizing there is still much work to be done to safeguard and increase reproductive freedom.

"Today, we celebrate these initial steps on the path towards reclaiming full ownership over our bodies, our health, and our futures," said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, expressing gratitude that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris "have begun to right the wrongs of the last four years."

Tarah Demant, director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program at Amnesty International USA, said that striking the policy "is a victory for human rights and for the health and lives of every woman, girl, or person who can become pregnant."

"This disastrous policy undermines the human rights to health, equality, information, privacy, and expression," Demant said. "It's ineffective and it is deadly: the global gag rule decreases the availability of contraceptives, increases the rates of maternal death, increases the rate of closed health clinics, and places poor and rural women particularly at risk. It unnecessarily endangers health, all the while trampling on people's ability to protect their rights."

"Abortion is a human right. Full stop. This is about people living full lives that are their own," she added. Demant also said that Biden's executive action "is just the first step" and "Congress must now permanently repeal the global gag rule so that this destructive policy can't be reinstated by the next president."

Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Ami Bera (D-Calif.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) joined with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on Thursday to introduce the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act to permanently repeal the global gag rule.

While welcoming Biden's executive order, the lawmakers also argued--as Bera, a medical doctor, put it--that "Congress must act to ensure no future administration can implement this harmful policy."

Advocacy organizations from Planned Parenthood Action to the Guttmacher Institute voiced support for the legislation:

Other groups took aim at the Helms Amendment, which states that "no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions," as well as the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for patients seeking abortion care in the United States with few exceptions.

"Repealing the global and domestic gag rules are welcomed first steps in undoing sexist and discriminatory policies, often implemented by white, cisgender men with zero medical knowledge or experience," said Bridget Todd, communications director at UltraViolet. "But we need the administration to move with the urgency this moment requires to ensure access to abortion and reproductive healthcare for all against mounting threats both in the U.S. and abroad. Critically, we need President Biden to make good on his campaign promise and take a strong stance against the deadly and racist Hyde and Helms amendments."

The global gag rule and both amendments "have the same end goal-denying reproductive care to those who need it most," tweeted All* Above All. "We're grateful to see [Biden] rescind the global gag rule. Now it's time to #RepealHelms abroad and #BeBoldEndHyde at home."

McGill Johnson concurred. "From ending unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion to championing a permanent repeal of the global gag rule and an end to the racist Hyde and Helms amendments, there's work ahead!" she said. "Let's keep going until EVERYONE has the freedom to make their own healthcare decisions."

This post has been updated with comment from UltraViolet.

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