Is U.S. 'Gagging' the World on Abortion?

But many international health and reproductive rights groups are keenly aware of its influence.

While there is a consensus across ideological divides that abortion is a horrible business, a number of women's rights groups accuse the United States of exporting one of its most contentious conflicts abroad, where the realities are far removed from the ideological rift tearing America.

The policy, they say, is not stopping abortions, but is hurting family-planning work across the developing world.

"Women abroad are having a very tough time and not too many Americans are aware of what's happening," said Carol Schlitt of the Margaret Sanger Center International at Planned Parenthood of New York City. "This administration's policies are undermining women's health around the world — and that's quite scary."

Sticks, Powdered Glass and Cow Dung

First imposed by President Reagan at a 1984 Mexico City conference, the policy was suspended by President Clinton in one of his first acts after taking office, but then reinstated by Bush.

While the measure was hailed by several domestic abortion-rights groups, the primary concern for many medical practitioners in Asian and African countries affected by the policy is the impact on maternal deaths and health complications due to illegal, unsafe abortions.

According to the World Health Organization, around 78,000 women die due to complications resulting from an estimated 20 million unsafe abortions that occur every year, mostly in the developing world, where anything from sticks to powdered glass to herbal mixtures, catheters, coat hangers and cow dung is used to induce abortions.

In Kenya, for instance, where abortion is illegal, there are a staggering 1,300 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. According to "Access Denied," a recent collaborative research report, an estimated one-third of maternal deaths in the East African nation have been attributed to unsafe abortions.

‘Global Gag Rule’

For NGOs in an estimated 60 countries heavily dependent on funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other State Department branches, the inability to participate in public awareness or abortion-education campaigns has led a number of health and rights groups to dub the Mexico City Policy the "global gag rule."

A recent study by the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights found that in several less-developed countries, the fear of being cut out of much-needed U.S. aid money, coupled with an overzealous adherence to the "global gag order," had led to slow — and at times, an absence — of any moves to reform often antiquated family planning laws.

While the USAID mandate officially states that "the development of civil society depends on freedom of expression and association," the study concluded that by imposing the policy, the U.S. government had "taken on the role historically assumed by authoritarian regimes."

Lester Munson, chief of staff for global health at USAID, dismisses this characterization.

"It's nonsense," he said. "If they chose not to sign [onto the policy] we can find someone else. They can choose to work with us — or find another funder. We're mandated by Congress and the president to carry out a certain amount of family planning policy and we continue to carry out these programs."

The Mexico City Policy has also come in for criticism from some conservative groups, but for very different reasons.

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