Press Sotomayor on abortion ‘gag rule’

May 29th, 2009 | by addis portal |

Two and a half years ago, I visited a clinic in Ethiopia run by Marie Stopes International, which offers post-abortion care to women suffering from the results of botched abortions. The fact that post-abortion care was institutionalized tells you something about the questionable safety and reliability of abortions in Ethiopia, where they were legal under certain circumstances.

Lacking access first to contraceptions, then to safe abortions, some Ethiopian women went to quacks or tried to do the abortion themselves, with harmful consequences.
One reason for their lack of access was the restriction attached to U.S. foreign aid for family planning, called the global gag rule. It forbade nongovernmental organizations abroad, that run family-planning clinics with the help of U.S. funding, from performing abortions or offering abortion counseling, referrals or advocacy. Clinics that refused to sign lost funding.

The gag rule was first imposed by President Reagan and has been, alternately, reimposed by Republican presidents and lifted by Democratic ones since. President Obama rescinded it in January. But if a ruling by his Supreme Court nominee is any indication, Sonia Sotomayor may oppose him on that issue.

Sotomayor upheld the gag rule while on the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, writing that the constitutional rights of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, a U.S. advocacy group, were not undermined though the policy prevented it from interacting or collaborating with foreign nongovernmental organizations subject to the gag rule. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position and can do so with public funds,” she wrote in 2002. She even acknowledged that the gag rule gave anti-abortion groups a competitive advantage in the control of information.

Sotomayor hasn’t ruled on the constitutionality of abortion itself, though in a few related cases she sided with abortion opponents. Obama’s spokesman has said the president doesn’t know her abortion views, but noted she’s Catholic.

Responses on both sides to the choice of Sotomayor assumed a Democratic pro-choice president would appoint an abortion-rights defender. Americans United for Life said she would “impose her personal policy and beliefs onto others from the bench.” NARAL Pro-Choice America hailed her “distinguished record.” Both sides jumped to conclusions that could be wrong.

Her position on the gag rule doesn’t necessarily reflect an anti-abortion view, and it’s unlikely that Roe v. Wade would be overturned either way, though the court could allow more limits on it. But whatever her abortion views, there’s a legitimate concern about the constitutionality of our foreign-aid policies.

The gag rule forbids discussion of abortion even in the case of rape and incest, and even if the money comes from other sources than U.S. aid. Family-planning professionals in Ethiopia blamed it for cutting off supplies of contraceptives and even compromising HIV screening and treatment. Unwilling to sign onto the restriction, the largest independent family-planning provider had to close rural services, leaving women to walk 30 miles or more.

Sotomayor’s writing suggested those who don’t like U.S. policy can take or leave our money. But it’s not that simple. These are poor countries with little recourse. If they can’t offer contraceptives, more women end up pregnant, and some try to abort, safely or not. The gag rule undemocratically limits free speech since the service providers have no say.

The Senate Judiciary Committee should ask Sotomayor to clarify her stance. Even pro-choice Americans might shrug this off as not directly affecting us. But we need a justice who is consistent in her approach to the rights we operate under in our dealings at home and abroad. And we need aid policies that help, not harm.

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