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For Bush, abortion gag rule is only the beginning

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


One of George W. Bush's first acts as president -- literally on his first full day in office -- was to delight conservative supporters by reinstating the Global Gag Rule. The rule prohibits U.S. foreign aid money from flowing to overseas family planning organizations that provide abortion services or even talk favorably about abortion to their patients or the public.

As counterproductive as this was in the overpopulated regions of the developing world, the move came as little surprise. Bush opposes abortion and said so during the campaign. It was natural for him to use his new mantle of power to disadvantage abortion rights supporters.

What was not well understood, however, was just how far Bush's antagonism toward reproductive freedom goes. Apparently, it stretches well beyond abortion into extreme positions against access to contraception and sex education.

Domestically, Bush quickly distanced himself from a straightforward report issued last week by Surgeon General David Satcher. The report said that, to be effective in reducing unwanted pregnancy and protecting against sexually transmitted disease, sex education programs need to go well beyond abstinence. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer made clear that the report had been commissioned under President Clinton and said that President Bush's approach is to support abstinence education.

Also, Bush has proposed in his fiscal year 2002 budget to eliminate the guarantee that all federal employees' health insurance cover contraceptives. There is no health-related or fiscal reason to target this benefit and he did so without offering any explanation. According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the contraceptive benefit provides coverage to 1.2-million women of child-bearing age, and since its adoption has caused no corresponding increase in premiums.

On the international front, Bush is going even further. The Washington Post reported in mid-May that the American Medical Association and other professional health organizations were left off the list of the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Instead, a seat was given to Jeanne Head, the International Right to Life Federation's lobbyist at the United Nations.

Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, is a veteran of U.N. meetings where the language of international agreements on health policies and women's and children's rights is hammered out. Having been on every such U.S. delegation during the Clinton administration, she has seen the marked shifts in U.S. policy. According to Germain, at a recent preparatory meeting for a U.N. special session on children in September, the U.S. objected to a call for reproductive health services to be made accessible to those of appropriate age. This goal had previously been approved by the United States, but was now unacceptable because "health services" might include abortion.

"The political ideology reflected here has no concern whatsoever for the lives, the health and the rights of women," said Germain.

It seems our current foreign policy is aggressive disregard for the special conditions and difficulties of the women and girls living in the Third World. Until Bush came to office, the United States took a leadership role in supporting worldwide comprehensive sex education, including detailed content and concrete goals. For example, we negotiated an earlier agreement to say that by 2005 governments should ensure that at least 90 percent of young people have access to condoms and relevant information. But our policy has now shriveled. The new U.S. position, according to Germain, is that sex education should be limited to issues of early pregnancy and early fatherhood and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, with emphasis on abstinence-only. This kind of language sets no goals and offers no specifics. No part of it is actionable.

Maybe our new president doesn't understand how moving from specific, action-oriented language to generalities undermines international efforts to assist extremely vulnerable populations of girls and women in developing countries. Specific action plans agreed to at U.N. conferences provide vital political cover for those trying to change conditions for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, where as many as half are married by 19 and where married women are expected to provide sex on demand.

When asked about the changes in policy, a State Department official said there is currently "a very active debate on what the administration's policy should be," but that "it's doubtful that we would walk away from any agreement made in an international forum."

One can hope. But the administration's actions so far aren't reassuring. From reinstating the Global Gag Rule, to objecting to health services and sex education, Bush has demonstrated that he is more concerned with serving his narrow ideological agenda than in offering tens of millions of girls and women around the world an opportunity for a life free of unwanted pregnancies and HIV.

If that's compassionate conservatism, what's the compassionless variety?

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