At last night’s foreign policy debate, the presidential candidates took several opportunities to frame their positions in terms of gender equality. Irin Carmon at Salon counted up nine vague allusions to women’s rights as an important component to achieving stable development in countries around the world.
However, even though Mitt Romney was the first candidate to utter the phrases “women in public life” and “gender equality,” he is on the record as supporting at least one policy that would serve to directly undermine those goals abroad. Before Romney’s campaign started tacking to the center in an attempt to obscure his extreme anti-choice record, Romney bolstered his “severely conservative” credentials by publicly supporting the reinstatement of the so-called global gag rule.
Officially know as the “Mexico City Policy,” the global gag rule is a Reagan-era policy — repealed under Clinton, reinstated under the Bush administration, and rolled back again after Obama took office — that restricts USAID funding for women’s health organizations abroad, an indirect method of targeting reproductive freedom across the world. Under the rule, organizations that even so much as mention abortion services to their clients, even for purely educational purposes as part of comprehensive sexual health instruction, are totally ineligible for funding from the United States. Health clinics are forced to choose between censoring the health programs they have developed to serve women’s needs or being denied the funding they need to keep their doors open at all — severely crippling family services programs for women abroad, just as far-right attacks on Planned Parenthood serve to do here in the U.S.
On several occasions, Romney has pledged to reinstate the global gag rule if he is elected to office. For the 47,000 women who die each year from unsafe abortions around the world, this is no small matter. Romney may claim he is committed to promoting gender equity in foreign countries. But until he revokes his support for policies that undermine women’s safety and deny them the resources to promote their own physical and economic autonomy, he is merely playing lip service to women everywhere.