The ‘Global Gag Rule’ is a major foreign policy test for Australia

Joanna Pradela

08 Mar, 2017

Last week the Trump administration issued guidelines to international organisations for the implementation of the Mexico City Policy, also known as the ‘global gag rule’. With the guidelines issued, aid organisations that provide, or even discuss abortion as an option for women facing unintended, unviable or life-threatening pregnancies will be barred from receiving U.S. funding for the whole of their activities. 

Family planning and reproductive health services are typically provided in holistic environments so the rule has the consequence of shutting down entire programs where antenatal care is delivered for women with wanted, healthy pregnancies; where ultrasounds and other monitoring is done for women with wanted, high-risk pregnancies, and where families come to get screening and treatment for other reproductive needs including cancer checks, vasectomies and contraception.

The impacts of the global gag rule are wide-ranging and for women, men and children, alike, the loss of these services can be the difference between life or death.

As one of the first acts by President Trump with ramifications for communities across Asia and the Pacific, the ‘global gag rule’ has become one of the first major tests of Australian foreign policy. Will Australia project our nation’s values by contributing to the shortfall, both in leadership and financial terms?

According to Batya Atlas, Senior Manager External Relations for Marie Stopes International Australia, the regional impact of the rule will be devastating for millions of women and their families relying on Marie Stopes International and other organisations for access to sexual and reproductive health services.

In Cambodia, USAID funding accounts for nearly half of all Marie Stopes' services. Without alternative funding, it is estimated that the rule will result in nearly 12,000 unintended pregnancies, 6,600 abortions and an additional 5,100 unsafe abortions. In Myanmar, where only one in three women currently has access to contraception, loss of funding to Marie Stopes International is estimated to result in over 20,000 unintended pregnancies, close to 13,000 abortions, an additional 8,000 unsafe abortions.

While the US administration is implementing policy leading to poor health outcomes for women, the Australian government has taken a different approach. They are committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health worldwide, recognising family planning as one of the most cost-effective interventions for improving maternal health. 

The timing of an announcement of $9.5m to IPPF’s SPRINT program in February by Julie Bishop was an indication that Australia was taking a different tact. It was a brave move, which contravened a newly announced policy of one of Australia’s closest allies by an untested and unpredictable President with whom the Australian Government is seeking to form a working relationship.

The Government’s recognition of family planning as a means of empowering women has been reflected in the DFAT Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy (2016) and adoption of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has described gender equality as “one of the best ways to promote economic growth and to achieve peace and security”.

However, despite its prominent billing, family planning funding as part of the official aid program has decreased annually from 2013 and accounts for only 0.7% of the aid budget. Evidence given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the Senate Estimates hearing at the beginning of March indicates that it has decreased again in 2015/16.

While the attendance of Australia’s new Ambassador for Women and Girls, Sharman Stone at the ‘She Decides’ conference was warmly welcomed and Australia’s support recognised, there was no additional funding commitment made for the collective movement seeking to plug the gap created by the rule. 

Batya Atlas sees this as an opportunity for Australia:

“The shift in US policy and subsequent decline in funding for sexual health and family planning provides an opportunity for the Australian government to further demonstrate their commitment to women in the region and we would hope to see this reflected in policy decisions going forward.”

This is an opportunity for leadership and to send a clear message to the region that we will stand by and uphold the values that are an integral part of our national character.  They have defined us prior to the Trump administration and now we have an opportunity to be resolute and hold fast – let’s seize it! 

  • Joanna Pradela
    Joanna Pradela

    Joanna has been the Head of Policy and Advocacy at ACFID since 2013.  Prior to this, she has had a decade of experience in the overseas aid and development sector specialising in humanitarian response; women’s empowerment; sexual and reproductive health and rights; education, and; philanthropy and social justice. Joanna has a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and a Master’s degree in International Relations.


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