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Our First Amendment Rights Are Under Assault With the Global Gag Rule

The Trump administration is dismantling women's health and rights

repro justice for all

White House adviser Ivanka Trump announced she is planning a trip to Africa to "economically empower" women in the very same countries where the Trump administration is simultaneously dismantling women's health and rights. (Photo: Charlotte Cooper/flickr/cc)

On Wednesday White House adviser Ivanka Trump announced she is planning a trip to Africa to promote a global women’s initiative she is leading. Her goal is to “economically empower” 50 million women in developing countries by 2025 at the cost of $100 million.

As Ivanka embarks on her plan to help support women in Africa, the Trump administration is simultaneously dismantling women’s health and rights in the very same countries Ivanka will be visiting.

Just last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took steps to dramatically expand the implementation of the Global Gag Rule—a policy that prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations who receive U.S. federal aid from performing or providing information on abortion.

The rule, enacted by every Republican president since Regan, has been catastrophic, imperiling women’s health, driving up unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, and contributing to global poverty. The ill effects extend far beyond limiting abortion rights, impacting every facet of reproductive health and constraining NGOs’ ability to lobby for reform.

The new move goes beyond any previous interpretation by other administrations, restricting “gagged” organizations from funding groups that provide abortion services and information, even though those organizations don’t get any U.S. aid.

It’s not only an outrageous overreach of an onerous policy that forces organizations to either stay true to their mission and turn down funding from the U.S. government, or comply with a policy that compromises their mandate—it underscores the antithetical programs coming out of Trump’s White House in the guise of women’s empowerment and advancing prosperity for marginalized communities.  

It also shows a breathtaking lack of self-awareness by Ivanka and our government. How can her program empower women economically as clinics in their communities shut down and if they can’t easily access basic items and services like contraceptives and maternal health care? Is gagging abortion advocates meant to empower them?

Research shows that without access to basic reproductive health care, women can’t thrive economically. Expanding contraceptive use improves women’s agency, education, and labor force participation. Yet across Africa, there is an unmet need for family planning, and low contraceptive use keeps women from achieving their desired family size, limiting women’s economic advancement.

While shameful, this is not all that surprising. The White House is dismantling hard-won rights to reproductive health and freedom at home and abroad at a pace unlike any other previous administration. When Trump first reinstated the Global Gag Rule as one of his first executive orders in office in 2017, he applied it to an unprecedented amount of global health assistance funds, resulting in devastating impacts on groups that work on everything from water and sanitation to HIV and AIDS.

Two years later, the Trump administration reinstated the “Domestic Gag Rule,” an anti-choice policy that bans providers in the U.S. from receiving government funds from referring patients for abortion services. The rule is set to take effect on May 4.

At the Open Society Foundations, we have a long history of fighting for basic human rights, including those to health and equality. We’ve worked to protect and expand reproductive rights across the globe, most recently standing with organizations that overturned Ireland’s abortion ban. In the U.S., we have supported Planned Parenthood’s efforts to stave off the closure of clinics and worked to rebuff legislation aimed at chipping away at Roe v. Wade.

When we talk about women’s empowerment, we mean it.

We have battled against the Global Gag Rule and similar attempts to place unconstitutional restrictions on NGOs’ ability to advocate on health issues for years. When Congress sought to place restrictions on federal funding for groups fighting HIV and AIDS that didn’t explicitly oppose prostitution, the foundations challenged the act in court. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court found in our favor, ruling that the act violated organizations’ First Amendment rights by mandating that they “pledge allegiance to the government’s policy.”

We know the damage the Global Gag Rule has wrought on basic human rights and economic development for communities worldwide, and we are committed to minimizing its harms, and seeing that the policy is permanently repealed. As a funder that champions open democratic values and human rights, we will not be gagged, nor will we stand by as the vibrant movements we support are attacked.

If Ivanka wants her program to succeed, she should start by pressuring her own government to repeal the policies that hurt women’s health and advancement the most.

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Jonathan Cohen

Jonathan Cohen

Jonathan Cohen is the director of the public health program at Open Society Foundations where he oversees grant making and advocacy to improve social inclusion in public health policy and practice. Cohen previously served as director of the law and health initiative at Open Society Foundations where he oversaw legal aid and litigation in over 15 countries.

Kavita Ramdas

Kavita Ramdas

Kavita Ramdas is director of the Women's Rights Program at Open Society Foundations and a globally recognized advocate for gender equity and justice, previously serving as a president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women and as a senior advisor at Ford Foundation.

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