U.S. Restrictions on Free Speech & Association: How U.S. Anti-Abortion Policy Violates International Law

The Global Gag Rule Violates the Freedom of Speech

Since 1973 and the passage of Roe v. Wade, the United States has imposed restrictions on how foreign aid money is spent when it comes to abortion. These restrictions directly impact health care providers by reducing the services and information they can give. In fact, the restrictions are so far-reaching that they also limit the activities of experts and advocates when it comes to defending abortion rights. As a result, the U.S.—a country that prides itself on its democratic ideals—is continually violating the free speech and association rights of health care providers and advocates around the world.1

How U.S. Abortion Restrictions Violate International Law

  • Limit debate on issues of public interest and advocacy on human rights.
  • Harm the democratic process of other countries by preventing the free and open discussion of abortion as a right and barring the discussion of legislative changes to make the right effective.
  • Fail to provide sufficient clarity on which speech and activities remain allowed, creating a chilling effect on speech and activities that remain permissible. 
  • Do not pursue a legitimate aim such as national security or public health. The U.S. government itself does not see these restrictions as necessary to achieving a legitimate aim, as the Global Gag Rule is regularly removed and reinstated by U.S. presidents along party lines. In fact, the restrictions threaten women’s health by decreasing access  to necessary health care services and increasing unsafe abortion rates.2

March News Update: GJC Fights Back Against Trump's Anti-Choice Policies

An official appointed by Trump said during a closed-door meeting at the UN that the United States is a "pro-life country." 
Legally, it's not.

The official also tried to negotiate the removal of any references to "sexual and reproductive health" in a UN document. Every day, the Trump Administration shows its willingness to take even more radical anti-choice positions than past Republican administrations.  

Photo: Steenaire / CC BY 2.0

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Today on International Women’s Day, the Global Justice Center Presses Forward for New Rights for Women

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -March 8, 2018

[New York]– On International Women’s Day, the Global Justice Center stands with women and girls raped in conflict. As a direct result of the abortion restrictions the US puts on its foreign aid, including the Trump Administration’s expanded Gag Rule, women in conflict are regularly denied the medical care they are entitled to and need.

US Abortion Restrictions on Foreign Aid and Their Impact on Free Speech and Free Association

The United States (US) imposes restrictions on its foreign aid that limit both services and speech related to abortion. They attach to nearly all recipients of foreign aid—limiting the activities, speech, and information that can be legally provided by doctors, health professionals, experts and advocates. These restrictions violate the US’s fundamental human rights obligations to protect free speech and free association.

This brief explains the restrictions on free speech and association imposed by the US Congress (the Helms and Siljander Amendments) and by the executive branch (the Global Gag Rule [“Gag Rule” or “GGR”]). It then details the US’s human rights obligations to respect freedom of speech and association, focusing on obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR only allows for the restriction of these rights in narrow circumstances: where the restriction is adequately provided by law, where it serves a legitimate aim (such as national security or public health), and where the state demonstrates that the restriction is necessary and proportionate in achieving that aim. This brief demonstrates that the Helms and Siljander Amendments and the GGR all fail that strict test, and therefore violate US obligations to ensure and protect the rights to free speech and association guaranteed under international human rights law.

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On the Anniversary of “She Decides,” US Must Repeal its Anti-Abortion Restrictions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -March 2, 2018

[New York]– Today marks the one-year anniversary of the day when governments all over the world came together and created the She Decides initiative to combat the impact of the Trump administration’s expanded Global Gag Rule. She Decideshas raised over $450 million to date to support women’s sexual health and reproductive rights, however estimates show that the Gag Rule may impact over $2.2 billion in funding per year.

Submission to the UN Human Rights Council for US UPR

GJC sends a mid-term report submission for the Universal Periodic Review of the United States of America. The report examines the restrictions that the US puts on foriegn aid regarding the provision of abortion services and the ways those restrictions violate international law.

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State Department Releases Flawed and Premature Review of the Global Gag Rule

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -February 9, 2018

[NEW YORK] On Wednesday, the State Department released a six-month review on the impact of the Global Gag Rule (or as the White House calls it, the “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” policy.) This review is both limited in scope and extremely premature, as insufficient time has passed to assess the impact of the policy and draw conclusions. 

FAQ: How US Abortion Restrictions on Foreign Assistance, including the Global Gag Rule, Violate Women Rights & Human Rights

On January 23, 2017, his second day in office, President Trump issued an executive order reinstating the Global Gag Rule (“GGR” or “Gag Rule,” now termed “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance”), restricting US funding for organizations that provide abortion services as a method of family planning. The GGR joins a multitude of other restrictions on family planning and abortion imposed on US foreign assistance that permit the US government to dictate the care provided to women around the world. This FAQ explores commonly asked questions about these policies—what they are, what they mean, and their impact is—including on women’s and human rights.

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Ninety humanitarian and human rights groups call on European Commission to provide abortion services to women and girls in war zones

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -November 23, 2017

[NEW YORK and GOMA]– On Saturday, the world celebrates the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In anticipation of this day, a global coalition of ninety civil society organizations calls on the European Commission to ensure that abortion, a medical procedure, is included in the medical care offered to women and girls, particularly in areas where rape is used as a weapon of war. 

Global Justice Center Applauds Senate Committee Vote Against Global Gag Rule

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 8, 2017

[NEW YORK, NY] – On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee moved to reinstate funding for the United Nations Population Fund and overturn Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Global Gag Rule. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire proposed an amendment to the 2018 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill that would overturn Trump’s expanded version of the Gag Rule, reinstate US contributions to UNFPA and limit the power of any future president to reinstate the Gag Rule. The amendment was approved with the votes of two female republicans, Senator Collins from Maine and Senator Murkowski from Alaska, but still needs to pass the full senate to become law.

US Abortion Restrictions: An Explainer

President Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule is being implemented through standard provisions issued by all affected agencies and sub-agencies, including:

Except for some small non-material language, these regulations are substantially the same across agencies. To provide context, GJC has annotated USAID’s Standard Provisions for Non-US Non-Governmental Organizations (ADS 303), which is the primary vehicle through which this censorship is being effected. These regulations also include provisions which implement other US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, including the Helms and Siljander Amendments, which restrict the activities of all recipients of US foreign assistance.

This annotation highlights, explains and contextualizes the laws and policies that restrict or place restrictions on U.S. funding of abortion or family planning services abroad.

Background: After the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade (which held that the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy), Congress began restricting abortion access through funding restrictions both domestically (Hyde Amendment) and abroad (the Helms Amendment). Over the years, the funding restrictions on foreign assistance have grown and now encompass all US foreign aid through their incorporation into annual appropriations acts, which are then implemented by agencies providing foreign aid, primarily USAD and the State Department. These congressional restrictions limit what can be done with US funds.

 In 1984, President Reagan expanded these restrictions on foreign NGOs through the “Mexico City Policy” (or Global Gag Rule) and began limiting with those organizations could do with their funds from any donor. The Gag Rule was rescinded by President Clinton, reinstated by President Bush, rescinded by President Obama and reinstated and expanded by President Trump.

Today, all entities receiving US foreign aid cannot speak about or provide abortions with US funds in any circumstances, including rape, life endangerment and incest. Furthermore, foreign NGOs receiving US global health assistance aid must now certify that they will not actively promote or provide abortion services as a method of family planning with funds from any donor and all NGOs receiving US global assistance funds cannot partner with or sub-grant to any foreign NGO that won’t certify the same. As a result, today, the United States is denying necessary and safe medical care to women and girls around the world in violation of their rights under international law.

This annotation seeks to demystify US abortion restrictions and map how and where they are put into place.  

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U.S. Continues to Prioritize Anti-Abortion Policy Over The Wellbeing of Women

By Marie Wilken

The United States recently rejected a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on violence against women because it contained language calling for access to abortion in countries where it is legal. This is yet another example of the Trump administration using international aid and laws to limit access to abortion around the world. Like the Global Gag Rule, this rejection ignores that in addition to infringing on reproductive rights, these actions have many negative ramifications that are unrelated to abortion.

After a resolution aimed at eliminating violence and discrimination against women, introduced by Canada, was adopted by consensus, the United States dissociated from the consensus because of a sentence about abortion.  While abortion was not a primary focus of the resolution, it stated that all women should have access to “comprehensive sexual and health-care services” including “safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law.” U.S. First Secretary to the U.N. in Geneva Jason Mack delivered a statement saying that the U.S. agrees with the “spirit” of the resolution but cannot endorse the paragraph on reproductive services because the U.S. does “not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance.”

This is not a singular action; its motivations and effects parallel other Trump administration policies. Congress’s new health care bill defunds Planned Parenthood—a policy that, though driven by anti-abortion sentiment, will have a much broader impact on women’s health care. This year President Trump reinstated and greatly expanded the Global Gag Rule. The administration refuses to fund international aid even loosely related to abortion, and its rejection of the UN resolution suggests it is adopting a similar approach toward international law. Because of the Gag Rule, organizations are afraid to even reference abortion out of fear of losing their U.S. funding. There is now fear that the same chilling effect to mentions of abortion and other reproductive rights will spread to international law. The Global Gag Rule, health care bill, and rejection of the UN resolution not only violate women’s reproductive rights, but all also deny women unrelated services and protections.

The United States’ resistance to international reproductive rights is dangerous. By denying women around the world safe and accessible abortion, it risks the lives of women and girls. Approximately 830 women die from preventable pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes per day. U.S. policy forces some of the world’s poorest women to choose between giving birth to a child they cannot afford to care for and seeking an unsafe abortion. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 225 million women in developing countries want to prevent pregnancy but are not using contraception, mostly due to the limited reproductive health services available.  The administration’s policies are also dangerous because of the message they send the international community about abortion and U.S. ideals. Abortion is a reproductive right, and reproductive rights are an essential aspect of women’s rights—but Mack’s statement separated abortion from other rights and reproductive health services and demonized it. He wielded United States influence over international norms to push them backwards, away from progress toward equal protection of rights.

Because of one sentence on abortion, the United States obstructed the entire resolution. In addition to attacking women’s reproductive rights, the U.S. missed its opportunity to show commitment to improving the lives women through preventing violence and eliminating discrimination. By doing so, the Trump administration reaffirmed its willingness to sacrifice women’s rights, health care, and even lives.