Rescinding the Global Gag Rule Isn’t Enough

If U.S. President-elect Joe Biden wants to champion gender equality and reproductive rights, he can’t just roll back Trump-era policies.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Activists from the Population Connection Action Fund hold signs as they project a message onto the Trump International Hotel to protest the Global Gag Rule in Washington on Jan. 23, 2019.
Activists from the Population Connection Action Fund hold signs as they project a message onto the Trump International Hotel to protest the Global Gag Rule in Washington on Jan. 23, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past four years, outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has abandoned even the pretense of a foreign policy grounded in respect for women’s rights and reproductive rights. Perhaps the clearest example was Trump’s unprecedented expansion of the global gag rule, or the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy (formerly known as the Mexico City policy). The global gag rule blocks U.S. funding for foreign organizations that provide any services, referrals, or even information for legal abortions, or that advocate for changes to abortion laws in their country. First implemented by the Reagan administration in 1984, the policy has been enforced during all subsequent Republican administrations. Before Trump reinstated it, it applied only to family planning funding. But since 2017, it has been extended to all global health funding.

Today, the gag rule places restrictions on $8 billion of U.S. global health funding, and it’s had grave consequences for women worldwide: As a direct result of the policy’s design to cut funding to healthcare providers, it has led to more maternal deaths and unsafe abortions, a rise in HIV and AIDS, and the breakdown of civil society coalitions and partnerships, such as Marie Stopes International, that provide reproductive healthcare in poor and rural regions worldwide.

On his first day in office, President-elect Joe Biden is expected to rescind the global gag rule in the tradition of Democratic presidents before him. Biden has also pledged to immediately restore U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund, the main U.N. agency concerned with sexual and reproductive health, which Trump defunded in 2017. In short, Biden’s goal is to roll back many of the Trump-era initiatives that have violated human rights—and especially women’s rights—both at home and abroad.

Rolling back Trump’s policies is just the bare minimum for gender equality worldwide.But rolling back Trump’s policies is just the bare minimum for gender equality worldwide. If Biden is going to help restore the world’s trust and confidence in the United States as a leader in global health and women’s rights, he’ll need to go much further. He will have to lead a feminist foreign-policy agenda that places marginalized communities, including women and LGBTQIA+ people, at its center. Past Democratic administrations often have stood for the right things, including gender equality, while implementing policies that undermine their own commitments. For Biden’s policies to be more effective than those of his predecessors, he will need to move beyond rhetoric and take direct action.

Even after losing the election, the Trump administration is still trying to cement its outdated, restrictive vision of human rights into the DNA of international policy. The administration is working to restrict protections for human rights to fit a white Christian patriarchal worldview by continuing to promote the report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (an arguably illegal body that seeks to limit and redefine the human-rights framework), undermining the U.N. consensus that rape victims have the right to seek an abortion, and further isolating the United States on the global stage.

Biden must push back against these measures on a broader scale at once by reentering treaties and international agencies such as the World Health Organization, the Paris climate agreement, and the U.N. Human Rights Council. The president-elect should also bring the United States into compliance with the few human-rights treaties it’s actually ratified; during Trump’s tenure, for example, the United States failed to submit reports on its progress toward implementing both the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By failing to do so, Washington has evaded responsibility for its human-rights record. Biden also needs to listen to what these bodies have to say. For instance, on Nov. 9, days after the election, the U.N. Human Rights Council held its periodic review of the United States, and over a dozen countries decried U.S. policies on sexual and reproductive health and made recommendations for action. In the previous years—and not just during Republican administrations—the United States failed to accept or act on similar recommendations.

Repairing the damage of the Trump administration will also require issuing a formal apology to countries whose progress toward public health goals and gender equality have been impeded by U.S. foreign policy. In Senegal, for instance, the movement to create a national safe abortion law ground to a halt in 2017 when its central advocacy group had to stop all campaigning in order to continue receiving U.S. funding because of the global gag rule.

Biden should revise and unequivocally reject Trump-era policies and documents that removed references to sexual and reproductive health and rights.Furthermore, Biden should revise and unequivocally reject Trump-era policies and documents that removed references to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including the State Department’s own annual human-rights reports. He must also shutter the Trump administration’s pet projects such as the Commission on Unalienable Rights and the Geneva Consensus, an anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQIA+ rights declaration the United States spearheaded to mobilize global support for its regressive positions—two initiatives that have received little support from the global community with the exception of autocratic governments.

Meanwhile, Biden should rescind the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s recently proposed Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy. Contrary to its title, the policy is out of touch with the reality of the struggle for gender equality: It excludes any reference to sexual orientation or gender identity, which in effect restricts access to reproductive health care and basic human rights for women and LGBTQIA+ communities. The USAID policy is an extension of the Trump administration’s domestic transphobic and anti-LGBTQIA+ agenda.

Trump’s USAID policy should be replaced with a comprehensive gender equality and reproductive health policy that builds on the strategies and policies of the President Barack Obama years, including USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy and the U.S. Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. This new strategy should be issued by the White House along with an implementation plan that outlines specific actions for each government agency to take, including a review of their existing regulations and other administrative policies related to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Even these actions wouldn’t be enough on their own. While they’ve had a better record on women’s rights, Democratic administrations tend to do only the bare minimum in advancing gender equality and sexual and reproductive health at home and abroad.

For example, despite an aggressive advocacy campaign from the international community, including women survivors of rape in conflict, Obama did not issue an executive order or take administrative action to allow congressionally permitted exceptions to the Helms Amendment, which has prohibited any U.S. foreign aid from providing abortion services since 1973, for rape, life endangerment, and incest—not even for women raped in war. And only recently have Democrats coalesced behind the repeal of policies such as Helms and the Hyde Amendment, which withholds federal funding from paying for abortion in the United States, denying women access to safe abortions for far too long.

In order to truly advance the rights of women and girls and restore trust in the United States around the world, Biden must build on this momentum from his Democratic base and make the changes permanent rather than subject to the whims of the next president. Unlike past administrations that have failed to prioritize supposedly controversial issues, including abortion, Biden shouldn’t be unwilling to expend what is often viewed as limited political capital on such issues.

The Biden administration must work with Congress to eliminate the existing restrictions that provided a foundation for Trump’s anti-abortion policies, including Helms. For the first time, in 2019, a bill to repeal Helms, called the Abortion Is Healthcare Everywhere Act, was introduced in Congress. It would take time to pass that bill, since Helms has been the status quo for almost 50 years. But even before Congress passes legislation, Biden can immediately step in where Obama failed to and issue an executive order to ensure, in line with international law, exceptions to abortion bans for rape, incest, and life endangerment.

Biden can’t just wait around and seek to make progress only in areas palatable to Republicans.The Biden administration should also work with Congress to pass the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Currently, the United States is one of only seven countries in the world that hasn’t ratified CEDAW, also known as the international bill of rights for women. A comprehensive treaty, CEDAW lays out a series of obligations for states to eliminate discrimination against women and realize substantive gender equality. If taken seriously, CEDAW could strengthen the framework of women’s rights in the United States, especially on issues such as abortion, paid maternity leave, and violence against women.

While some progress will certainly require the cooperation of Congress—which would likely necessitate a Democratic win in the Georgia Senate run-offs—it’s the Biden administration’s responsibility to set the tone and prioritize these issues. Biden can’t just wait around and seek to make progress only in areas palatable to Republicans, which are few and far between when it comes to gender equality.

At its core, the Biden administration’s plan to defend the rights of women and girls around the world must be rooted in the language of universal human rights. The good news is that Biden campaigned on a promise to live up to Washington’s historic commitment to human rights. But in order to restore U.S. global leadership, he’ll need to grapple with the violations of the Trump era and then “build back better,” as his campaign slogan has promised for domestic policy, to finally make the United States a global champion for sexual and reproductive health, women’s rights, and gender equality.

Serra Sippel is president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, which works to advance sexual and reproductive health rights for women and girls worldwide.

Akila Radhakrishnan is president of the Global Justice Center, an international human-rights organization that promotes gender equality with a focus on sexual and reproductive rights and justice for sexual and gender-based violence.

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