Gag Rule spreads AIDS

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Gag Rule stops AIDS funding

THE BUSH administration slapped a gag rule on overseas reproductive health clinics as its first official act in 2001. Now an analysis of four countries in Africa and Eastern Europe describes the rule's effect on the lives of individual women. The report, by a consortium of nonprofit organizations including Planned Parenthood, tells a shameful story of ideology driving poor, desperate women toward illness and death. In Kenya, five women's health clinics were closed and staffing cut by 30 percent because the clinic directors could not comply with the gag rule prohibitions. These clinics provided contraception but also prenatal and well-baby care. Losing these services can be fatal in a country where fewer than half the births are attended by a trained midwife.

In Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, women have an average of six children, and a third of the female population is pregnant by age 17. Thanks to the gag rule, peer education programs aimed at young people have been severely scaled back.

In Ethiopia, where people in some areas must walk two days to reach a highway, the rule has interfered with outreach programs that provide health care to otherwise forgotten communities. Voluntary AIDS counseling, testing, and prevention programs have been decimated. Life expectancy in Ethiopia, according to the United Nations, is 45 years.

In Romania, where abortion is tragically common, family planning counselors accepting US funds cannot reach women when they need it most -- immediately after having an abortion. Health workers are not allowed to lobby for safer abortion techniques or equipment. A successful program funded jointly by Planned Parenthood and US AID designed precisely to help women avoid abortion can no longer provide condoms to women at clinics where abortions are performed.

Supporters of the gag rule think they are helping to reduce abortions worldwide. But US foreign aid dollars are already barred from funding abortions, even in countries where the procedure is legal. The gag rule goes further by restricting US funds from health clinics that so much as inform their patients about the option of legal abortion or who work to change their country's laws. The rule is so strict that foreign aid cannot be used to fund AIDS programs, malaria treatment, screenings for cervical cancer, or prenatal care at clinics that also provide abortion services or counseling.

Throughout the world, progress is being made toward the emancipation of women through better education, economic development, and legal rights. The Bush administration's policies, embodied in the global gag rule, condemn women to a prison of poverty, ignorance, and ill health.