Henceforth, we should call it the Chris Smith gag rule, in honor of the tenacious Republican congressman from New Jersey, who is committed to exporting his antiabortion and anti-family-planning politics to the developing world.
The Smith gag rule forbids U.S. population planning funds to go to any private, nongovernmental organization in any foreign country that performs abortions or advocates abortion. There are exceptions where the life of the mother is threatened or if the pregnancy is a result of forcible rape or incest.
No U.S. foreign assistance funds are spent on abortions or on advocacy matters about abortion under current law. What the Smith rule does that is new is to prohibit those organizations from using their own funds to perform abortions if they want to get U.S. money. In addition -- and this is where the gag part comes in -- the rule prohibits any funds from going to organizations that "engage in activities or efforts to alter the laws or governmental policies of any foreign country concerning the circumstances in which abortion is permitted, regulated, or prohibited."
In other words, these organizations can't even provide information to public health ministries that are reviewing abortion laws. We spend millions of dollars every year trying to develop democratic institutions in Third World countries, but for the next fiscal year, we're going to be exporting a ban on the First Amendment.
The White House agreed to the Smith amendment in exchange for House approval of $926 million to pay our arrearages to the United Nations. The Clinton administration has twice rejected the Smith amendment because private, nongovernmental groups would give up U.S. funds rather than go along with the restriction, with the net effect of reducing family planning and other services to women in poor countries.
This year, Clinton capitulated. Outraged female members of Congress are blaming anti-choice Republicans in the House. But the inescapable fact is that in a purely cynical move, Clinton was willing to trade women's lives -- the women who die from too many pregnancies, the women who try to abort themselves -- for the U.N. money. Did he put money for the Middle East peace process on the table? Of course not. But he was willing to choke the nongovernmental organizations that deliver family planning services in some of the most backward places on Earth.
The White House is saying this isn't such a big deal, that there is a provision that allows the president to waive the ban on abortion activities, though if he does waive it, 3 percent, or $12.5 million, of the $385 million in population aid would be transferred to child survival programs. That's well and good if a Clinton or an Al Gore or a Bill Bradley is in the White House, but what if George W. were, whose father sneezed every time the antiabortionists took snuff?
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, isn't pulling any punches: "The extreme members of Congress tend to oppose family planning, and when they can frame a family planning issue as an abortion issue they do so.
"When you check their voting records, you see they vote against family planning, whether in the U.S or overseas. They've been obstructionists on paying U.N. dues. They win either way. That does not lessen, in any way, my complete outrage and disappointment with the administration. What makes me the angriest is it is always the most vulnerable people who get the shaft."
Early in his first administration, Clinton rescinded an executive order of the Bush and Reagan administrations that forbade family planning providers to discuss abortion with patients. "Isn't it ironic that the president who eliminated the (executive order) may be the first president to sign the gag rule into law," Feldt said.
Planned Parenthood and a coalition of women's advocacy and environmental groups had been in close touch with the White House throughout the budget process, Feldt said. Last week, she said, "suddenly the doors of communication were shut. The decision was made without any consultation whatsoever with the nongovernment organizations or with the women members of Congress. They are more than steamed."
Feldt doesn't buy that the administration had no choice. "When I see the skills they used on other funding bills, it's hard to believe they got outmaneuvered," she said. "It is simply the calculation that they can get away with sacrificing women for what they believe is the more important issue of U.N. arrears."
The amendment must be approved next year if it is to continue in force. That is what happened to the Hyde amendment, which bans using federal Medicaid funds for abortions for poor women, except to save their lives or in cases of rape or incest. That one-year amendment has survived from 1977 through 1999. Those with long memories, like Feldt and Smith, know that once an amendment to an appropriations bill is approved, it sets a precedent and becomes difficult to remove.
Congress has been hacking away at international family planning funds, which peaked at $436.4 million in 1995 and dropped to $385 million for each of the last three years. Estimates are that 150 million couples want family planning but do not yet have access. Nearly 600,000 women die during childbirth and pregnancy each year, and 75,000 die during abortion attempts. But those numbers tell only part of the misery. For each woman who dies during childbirth and abortion attempt, 30 more will sustain life-long injuries.
The net result of the Smith gag rule is that these groups will have to choose silence or money. Women are going to lose access to family planning services that reduce unplanned pregnancies and abortions-services that save their lives. It's a lousy, cowardly deal.