If Mitt Romney and his vice-presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, were to win next month's election, the harm to women's reproductive rights would extend far beyond the borders of the United States.
In this country, they would support the recriminalization of abortion with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and they would limit access to contraception and other services. But they have also promised to promote policies abroad that would affect millions of women in the world's poorest countries, where lack of access to contraception, prenatal care and competent help at childbirth often results in serious illness and thousands of deaths yearly. And the wreckage would begin on Day 1 of a Romney administration.
Romney has pledged that, on his first day in the White House, he would reinstate the "global gag rule," the odious restriction that has been used to deny federal money for family-planning work abroad to any organization that provided information, advice, referrals or services for legal abortion or supported the legalization of abortion, even using its own money.
Merely talking about abortion could cost groups not only federal money, but also useful technical support and U.S.-donated supplies of contraceptives, including condoms for distribution in the communities they serve.
The gag rule, also known as the "Mexico City policy," was imposed by the last three Republican presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan in 1984. It was rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993, then reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2001. President Barack Obama, fulfilling a campaign pledge, signed an executive order lifting the global gag rule shortly after taking office in 2009.
The gag rule did nothing to prevent use of government financing for abortions because that was already illegal under federal law. But it badly hampered the work of family-planning groups overseas, forcing clinic closures, reduced services and fee increases. It also violated principles of informed consent by requiring health care providers to withhold medical information from female patients. And, by stifling political debate on abortion-related issues and violating free speech principles, the gag rule badly undermined the United States' credibility as it tries to promote democracy abroad.
Republican opponents of family planning and women's reproductive autonomy in Congress have been trying to reinstate the gag rule by legislation. If elected, Romney has said he would do so with a stroke of the pen.
Romney also vows to renew another of George W. Bush's shameful policies (which was ended by Obama), which blocked the United States from contributing to the U.N. Population Fund. That fund supports programs in some 150 countries to improve poor women's reproductive health, reduce infant mortality, end the sexual trafficking of women and prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Like Bush, Romney has embraced the bogus charge that the Population Fund supports coerced abortions in China, ignoring a State Department investigation that found no evidence for that claim. In fact, the fund has helped promote a voluntary approach to family planning.
The annual federal contribution to the fund is now down to $35 million, compared with $55 million in fiscal years 2010 and 2011; overall support for international family planning and reproductive health programs stands at $610 million — far short of the need. Even so, this amount of money pays for contraceptive services and supplies that reach more than 31 million women and couples, averting 9.4 million unintended pregnancies, 4 million abortions (three-quarters of them unsafe) and 22,000 maternal deaths annually, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
House Republicans want to cut the nation's investment in international family planning severely. Romney's record of bending to suit the most extreme elements of the Republican Party suggests that he may well go along on this critical issue as well.