As Congress Returns, Women Will Need Courageous Leaders

A remorseless House of Representatives returns to Capitol Hill today, armed with a grim anti-woman agenda. Brace yourself for another tiresome, ideological attack on women's health and rights, in the form, once again, of the Global Gag Rule. It's an attack driven by propaganda and riddled with lies by those who consider women's lives and families expendable. The truth is that the Global Gag Rule kills. Period.

(If you who think we have enough battles here at home, pay attention. The Global Gag Rule and policies like it are just a way to perfect attacks on women before bringing them home.)

The Global Gag Rule is a presidential order that declares that U.S. international family planning funds cannot go to organizations that use non-U.S. funds for abortion services, counseling, or referrals. It translates into less support for women and men to plan the size of their families and space childbearing, because it diverts funds for contraception and family planning services away from effective organizations. Contraception and family planning services save lives of women and children; we know that. That's not a debatable point, it's a fact. Actively denying access to contraception also violates a woman's fundamental right to plan a family, but if that doesn't seem like an adequate reason to permanently stamp out the Global Gag Rule, women dying should certainly suffice.

Access to contraception means fewer women die or suffer permanent injury in childbirth, fewer victims of early marriage are forced to bear children before the age 15, more infants born healthy. Even conservative pundit Michael Gerson--not exactly a friend to reproductive rights--has acknowledged the cruelty of denying access to contraception and family planning services.

The Global Gag Rule has been kicked back and forth between presidents since Ronald Reagan introduced it in 1984. As an executive order, Congress doesn't have anything to do with its status--presidents can sign it in or out of existence with a pen click. It has come and gone four times in the last two decades. Congress is doing its best to intervene. Members on both sides of the aisles have introduced legislation in more than one session to either permanently repeal or permanently codify the rule as U.S. law.

In reality, the Global Gag Rule could never be applied in the United States, because it is unconstitutional. Withholding federal funds from an organization because they talk about a legal medical procedure--remember, the Global Gag Rule doesn't have anything to do with U.S. funding for actual abortion services, only funding for organizations that discuss abortion, or use non-U.S. money to provide services--doesn't work with the First Amendment.

Not that anti-family-planning forces haven't tried to impose it here.

Planned Parenthood has been fighting a U.S. version of the Global Gag Rule all year. The threat of losing U.S. funds because it provides a legal service with non-U.S. funds. Sound familiar?

The fact is that legislators who oppose family planning aren't terribly creative. Foreign policy is often their testing ground for policies too heinous for domestic constituents. But as has become clear in this past year, the Global Gag Rule is just a symbolic division between domestic and international women's rights. We are all being attacked, and we can't be divided. Opponents to family planning are ruthless and our supporters could bargain it away at any political moment.

We could, however, use a sign from our leadership that we're making progress. The White House, State Department, or Congress must have the courage to say that the Global Gag Rule has to go for good. Someone at the highest levels of government must clearly state that women's lives, and therefore family planning programs , are no longer bargaining chips for policies or budgets. As a nation, we believe (at least we act like we do) that women and men have a right to access basic services to plan families. The nation's leadership needs to start acting that way.