Executive Summary

On January 23, 2017, President Trump issued a Presidential Memorandum reinstating and expanding the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule.” President Trump’s implementation plan for the expanded policy, called “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance,” was announced in May 2017. The policy states that any foreign nongovernmental organization that takes US global health funds must certify that they do not engage in certain abortion-related activities, including providing abortion services, information, counseling and referrals, and advocating to expand access to safe abortion services. The Global Gag Rule applies to what organizations do with their own non-US government funds and forces health care providers to choose between providing a comprehensive spectrum of reproductive health care and receiving critical US funding. Trump’s Global Gag Rule expands a bad policy enacted by previous Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan, but now implicating almost $9 billion in US foreign assistance and affecting many organizations that had not previously had to comply with it.

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) is documenting the effects of the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance (“the Policy” or “the Global Gag Rule”) restrictions on civil society, the political climate, and women and girls, alongside grantee partners in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. To date, IWHC and partners have conducted 59 interviews with civil society organizations, health service providers, anti-abortion groups, and government agencies across the three project countries.

Although the Policy is still rolling out, some clear effects have emerged across the three very different country contexts in our first-year assessment:

    • Confusion and lack of information about the Policy exists at all levels and among all stakeholders. Interviews with directors of civil society organizations, as well as with program managers and health providers, demonstrated mixed levels of knowledge about the Policy. Nearly all interviewees expressed some lack of clarity or confusion about the Policy, suggesting potentially damaging effects on organizational decision making, as well as on the ability of individuals to serve their clients and save lives.
      These findings were not isolated to local nongovernmental organizations: interviewees discussed a lack of clear guidance from in-country US officials and from prime recipients of US global health funding. Confusion, coupled with fear of crossing the unclear boundaries, leads organizations to over interpret the Policy and to restrict themselves from carrying out even those activities permitted by the Policy.


    • The Policy is harming the most vulnerable populations in society. Interviews with service providers revealed that the Policy is already putting services further out of reach for marginalized women, women living in rural areas, and poorer women—populations that already have the least access to health services and information. In South Africa, where one in five women of reproductive age is living with HIV, many interviewees raised concerns that women living with HIV and poorer women would be disproportionately harmed by the Global Gag Rule. Across the three countries, interviewees from service delivery organizations, civil society organizations, and universities agreed that the Global Gag Rule would also disproportionately threaten the health of young people who are most in need of health information and services, but face the greatest barriers accessing them.


    • The Policy threatens progress towards integrated health systems, often made with US investments. Both national governments and the US government have heavily prioritized integration of health care services in recent years because it makes health systems more efficient and health services more accessible to patients that need care, especially in rural or hard-to-reach areas where health care options are limited. Now, the Global Gag Rule is forcing organizations to make a choice between continuing to provide life-saving services or to forego significant funding, an untenable choice that threatens to topple the advances in integrated healthcare previously supported by US global health funding.


    • The Policy has sparked anger at the US and national governments. Over half of the countries that receive US global health assistance allow abortion in at least one instance not permitted under the Global Gag Rule, putting the Policy at direct odds with local laws. Across the project countries, interviewees active in the health sphere found the Policy to be a form of neo-imperialism and described the Policy as “racist,” “unfair,” and “a bullying tactic.”
      The Global Gag Rule is more restrictive than abortion laws in many of the countries that receive US global health funding: a good number of these countries allow abortion to preserve the health of the woman, for example, while the Global Gag Rule does not. Many interviewees were outraged that the Policy uses health assistance as a tool to undermine their countries’ laws. Frustrations with the Global Gag Rule often coincided with calls for national governments to take ownership and accountability for the health of their own people.


    • The Policy, even when not in force, has long-lasting effects on civil society. Civil society organizations reported that critical partnerships and consortia are being lost as organizations that receive US funding stop collaborating with those who continue to work on abortion—creating gaps and inefficiencies that will be hard to remedy. Some organizations expressed growing distrust, deepening fissures, and increased competition for funding within civil society. The Policy causes funding fluctuations that destabilize civil society organizations.
      Interviewees from civil society, particularly in South Africa, felt that they were just beginning to recover from the earlier iteration of the Policy under the Bush Administration. The gag imposed by the Policy prevents civil society organizations that sign the Policy from expressing themselves freely and weakens their capacity to hold their own governments accountable.


Based on the findings, IWHC makes the following recommendations to US policymakers:

  • Permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule through legislation.
  • Develop and share clear guidelines for implementation with all recipients of US global health funding, including sub-award recipients and local organizations.
  • As long as the Global Gag Rule is in effect, any US government review process must be a consultative, transparent, comprehensive, and action-oriented analysis of the Policy and its impacts. Any review must pay particular attention to the effects of the Policy on marginalized populations.
  • Document and record instances of misapplication, over-application, and chilling effects of the Policy.


Other Recommendations:

  • Prime recipients of US global health funding must ensure that their staff, partners, and sub-award recipients understand the Global Gag Rule, especially those areas of work that are not covered by the Policy.
  • All international nongovernmental organizations, including prime recipients of US global health funding, donor governments and governments receiving US global health assistance should document the impact of the Global Gag Rule on their work, including misapplication, over-application, and the chilling effects, paying particular attention to marginalized populations. All stakeholders should publish their documentation and submit comments to any State Department reviews.
  • All stakeholders should continue to resist this harmful policy and work towards ending it. US-based nongovernmental organizations should continue to build support among members of the US Congress to repeal the Policy, and both donor governments and governments in countries that receive US global health assistance should actively advocate with the US government to end the Policy.
  • For a full list of recommendations, see page 19 of the full report [PDF].


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New @IntlWomen report: #GlobalGagRule harms women & girls, damages civil society & rolls back progress for health systems worldwide. #TrumpingWomensRights