MICHELE NORRIS, host:
President Obama is expected to issue an executive order soon that will rescind restrictions on international family planning groups. It bars organizations from receiving U.S. aid if they perform or promote abortions. It's known as the global gag rule. The policy has been changed every time a different party has taken the White House since 1984. That's when President Ronald Reagan first announced the policy at a conference in Mexico City. Here's NPR's Brenda Wilson.
BRENDA WILSON: Under the Mexico City policy, U.S. groups didn't lose the right to make the case for access to abortions because it would have violated rights to free speech. But it's called the global gag rule because foreign groups that associate with those who do abortions, abortion counseling, or advocacy could lose U.S. aid. Susan Cohen is the director of the advocacy group the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Ms. SUSAN COHEN (Director, Alan Guttmacher Institute): It says that if you want our family planning aid, you can't even use your own money to provide abortion services, or money you get from the British government or the Swedish government. And beyond that, it says you can't use your own money to counsel pregnant women who come in looking for safe abortion services. You can't refer these women.
WILSON: For eight years, she says, organizations have been forced to choose between abortion services or family planning, even in countries like Ghana where abortion is legal.
Ms. COHEN: They've had to close down entire parts of their family planning programs, especially the programs that were focused on outreach into the rural areas providing contraceptives to women who had no other source of obtaining those methods. They lost the U.S. government family planning assistance, and they were not able to find any replacement funds.
WILSON: Without the gag rule, organizations can apply to have family planning funds restored, even if they make abortion referrals. Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council says it means President Obama has gone back on his word to find common ground and ways to reduce abortions.
Mr. TOM McCLUSKY (Family Research Council): By reversing the Mexico City policy, we're saying that the policy of the United States for family planning includes abortion or killing the child.
WILSON: Changing the rule, however, does not mean that U.S. funds can be used to perform abortions. But McClusky doubts the government can keep track of how funding will be used.
Mr. McCLUSKY: Money is fungible. If the taxpayers are paying for anything from receptionists to lobbyists for Planned Parenthood, the more the taxpayer money that goes to Planned Parenthood, that frees up more money for abortions.
WILSON: One clinic affected by the gag rule is in Debre Berhan, a little college town that I visited in Ethiopia a couple of years ago. Abera Alemne(ph), the coordinator of the Marie Stopes Family Planning Center, says several women show up every month seeking an abortion.
Mr. ABERA ALEMNE (Coordinator, Marie Stopes Family Planning Center): We never encourage anyone to have abortion. But unwilling or willing, they can't.
WILSON: Because they're afraid of being found out, the women - schoolgirls really, he says - often take matters into their own hand. Up to 80,000 women around the world die from the complications of unsafe abortions. Berhan refers them to a local hospital.
Mr. ALEMNE: It's very sad. It's very bad to hear this. They keep on crying, help us. But because of the restrictive law, we can't answer all they need.
WILSON: For doing abortion referrals alone, family planning centers like this have been off-limits to groups that get U.S. funds. Lifting the global gag rule will change that. Brenda Wilson, NPR News.
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