Saturday, September 8, 2007

Gagging the Gag Rule

I love this country, truly I do, but when it goes off the rails, it goes way off. Not only do we Americans love religious theater, but we love to play it out on other people's stages, often at the cost of thousands of lives. Some of us will track down evil wherever it lives, apparently, so extreme is our commitment to morality. Sometimes in the course of our moral crusading we actually create larger evils than we stamp out, and that's a discomfiting result, but we don't let it stop us. We can't, because after all, we're standing on principle.

And because this is the American way, it's a happy surprise to note that the global gag rule, the most shameful, shortsighted, and sexually imperialistic bit of foreign policy mischief to ever come out of Washington, is finally under attack by Congress. (I have to note that the good guys in this case aren't guys at all; they're women, in the forms of Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe. Not a surprise.)

In the Senate yesterday:

The U.S. Senate yesterday voted to repeal the "global gag rule," reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2000 on his second day in office, which bans aid to international family planning organizations that provide or counsel on abortion.

By a vote of 53-43, senators struck down the rule, also called the "Mexico City Policy," which was first announced by former President Ronald Reagan in 1984 at a U.N. conference on population in Mexico City. It limited U.S. financial assistance to foreign family planning groups that do not promote or disseminate information about abortion. Former President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, but Bush reinstated it.

Yesterday's vote rejected a motion to kill an amendment by Senator Barbara Boxer, attached to a $27 billion State Department foreign aid bill, to repeal the global gag rule. Boxer said the rule would be unconstitutional if applied to family planning organizations in the United States. "How can we export a policy that denies free speech and still say we support democracy?" she asked.

The bill includes a provision restoring $50 million in funding to the U.N. Population Fund over a two-year period. Last July, the Bush administration withheld $34 million in funding for UNFPA, which had already been approved by Congress. The White House alleged that UNFPA indirectly supports forced abortion in China, a charge that was denied by UNFPA repeatedly as well as by numerous experts.

It faces a possible presidential veto, however. The White House Office of Management and Budget said before the vote that the administration would "strongly oppose" any amendment that would allow the government to fund abortion advocacy. "The president would veto the bill if it were presented to him with such a provision," the OMB said in a statement.

The Reproductive Rights Alliance of South Africa, where Bush visited yesterday and today, said the global gag rule has led to 1.5 million unwanted births, 15,000 maternal deaths, 92,000 infant deaths and 2.2 million unsafe abortions.

And in the House:

The House passed the foreign aid appropriations bill (HR 2764) in June with provisions exempting contraceptives from the global gag rule and repealing the abstinence-only funding restrictions for HIV prevention programs. According to Population Action International, this marks the first time since the Global Gag Rule has been in effect, from 1984-1993 and again since 2001, that both the House and the Senate have passed legislation to repeal or modify its restrictions.

I've followed the scandalous gag rule since it was signed into law under Reagan, but writing about it now, I'm wondering why, obvious reasons aside, it still incites so much passion in me. Why I'm still so angry about it. And I think it's this: it's one of the most pernicious side effects of our showy religious culture, and one more reason that "faith-based" policies with all their paternalistic moral undertones are so ultimately destructive, both to actual lives and to the body politic. The mullahs in Washington simply have no right to make life-and-death decisions for poor women and poor children they'll never meet and to whom they will never be accountable. They have no right to ignore the facts, meaning the quanitifiable effects of policies on real lives, in favor of a smug religious ideology not shared by those their decisions affect. They have no right, that is, in a country such as this one, which supposedly cherishes reason. Do they?

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