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US Overseas Aid: Global Gag Rule

Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the reinstatement by the government of the United States of the global gag rule, which requires that overseas organisations in receipt of US aid cannot provide abortion services or information about family planning.

My Lords, the UK will continue to demonstrate leadership for comprehensive evidence-based sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion. We will continue to extend access to contraception for millions of women who cannot choose whether and when they have children.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. When similar policies have been enacted by previous US Presidents, they have had a devastating effect on maternal health programmes across the world. Has DfID made an assessment of whether this global gag policy will have a direct effect on any programmes it runs? What steps will DfID take, along with other Governments such as the Dutch Government, and the Gates Foundation, to try to offset the disaster that will befall millions of women as a result of this policy?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to say that we have been here before. This has been the policy of successive Republican Administrations since the Reagan presidency. Therefore, in a sense, people knew what was coming down the track. Clearly, a very important part of what we in the international community do is family planning, and the Government are committed to ensuring that that continues. Specifically on the Dutch initiative and the She Decides conference, which is being held next week, DfID will be represented there. Also, later in the year, we will host a family planning conference, similar to that which we held in 2012. We hope it will be an opportunity for the international community to come together and decide how we move forward and work through these issues.

My Lords, was the Minister right to benchmark this decision against what happened under Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the aftermath of international funding flowing into China, which led to the one-child policy, forced abortions and the sterilisation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women, and which has now distorted the population balance in China so that there are 33 million more men than there are women—115 boys born to every 100 girls? Is this coercion of women not something that we should be very concerned about?

That was part of the rationale, not under the Mexico City proposal but under the Kemp-Kasten amendment. Our understanding of the executive order signed by the President last month is that it references the Kemp-Kasten amendment. That is another reason why we need to work through and understand what it actually means for what we are doing in this area.

My Lords, when President Clinton was putting his Administration together in his first term, he said, “I want my Government to look and behave like America”. If that doctrine was correct then, does the Minister think it holds good under the current Administration?

The noble Lord leads me down a path. Our opposition on this is quite clear. When you look at the numbers and work in the international community, you recognise that the United States is the most generous country in the world, through its people and its private foundations, in what it gives to family planning around the world—it accounts for something like 47.5% of the total amount. Therefore, if we really care about people rather than political positions and statements, it behoves us to say that we want to work with our friend and ally to resolve these matters for the benefit of those whom we seek to help.

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that women who have become pregnant as a result of rape in conflict situations will still have access to safe abortion?

That is something on which this Government and the previous coalition Government did a great deal of work—my noble friend Lord Hague led on that—to raise the profile of the prevention of sexual violence in war. We will continue to work on that but, of course, in all cases when we are dealing with safe abortion we have to pay cognisance to the legal framework of the country in which we operating, and that requires a degree of sensitivity.

My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, this measure will have a devastating impact on millions of women around the world. Will DfID issue guidance to country offices on how to mitigate the impact of this new policy?

We have to remain calm in this area. We know what the policy is and we have worked within this context before. The Secretary of State in her letter of 8 February to Stephen Twigg, the chairman of the International Development Committee, made it abundantly clear that our position is absolutely resolute in support of sexual and reproductive rights. We need to work with international partners. That is part of the constructive engagement which will take place at the London conference later this year.

My Lords, is it correct that this executive order is not exactly the context in which we have worked before? There is a danger that it goes far beyond sexual health services and will affect services for those with Zika, TB and AIDS and maternal and child health services? Can I press the Minister a little further? As he said, his department has been very strong in the area of women’s health. Will DfID be supportive of the Dutch Government when they try to fill the gap and save women from some of the disastrous effects of this policy?

We are certainly leading by example. We continue to be the biggest funder of organisations such as Marie Stopes. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to say that this measure is different, that it contains some different elements and that we do not quite understand how they work. That is why it is important to keep a good relationship with the United States Administration, particularly USAID, so that we can work through these issues and find out how we go forward in a way that does not put more lives at risk.

My Lords, the Dutch Government have announced that there is a possible £600 million shortfall in funding. They have had a response from 20 countries. Can the Minister confirm whether this Government have responded to the direct call of the Dutch Government? Will he reassure the House that at the London conference they will make sure that this shortfall is a priority discussion among our partners there?

A couple of weeks ago I was with the Dutch Development Minister here in London at the Nordic Plus Group meeting and this issue came up. It is fair to say that we believe in a constructive engagement approach with USAID to find out all the details of what the measure actually means before we move forward. But certainly, as I mentioned to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, we will attend the She Decides meeting in Belgium next week. Of course, we are open to taking work forward on this important issue.

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, can the Minister confirm that this Government recognise—as we did in coalition—that international law trumps national law in conflict situations when dealing with the cases that she talked about? If he is not sure about that, can he please write to me?

There is a very specific form of words which the noble Baroness will be aware of that we are required to use in this situation, which was internationally agreed. I will put that in writing to her.