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Off to a bad start



President Bush's first major decision in office has gotten his administration off on the wrong foot. Imposing a global "gag" rule on international family planning providers is bad politics and even worse policy.

Politically, mandating this policy through an executive order on the first day of office is not the action of "a uniter." There is no doubt that the President faced tremendous pressure from his right flank to issue the global gag rule. Thousands of ardent right-to-life protesters were in Washington Monday to march on the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Clearly, there is conservative appeal in announcing the policy to a few thousand marchers and other zealous opponents of family planning and reproductive health services. On the other hand, for a new President hoping to strike a bipartisan posture after a campaign in which he did everything he could to play down the abortion issue, this was a dreadful political misstep -- inviting continued rancor, not a new spirit of consensus.

The public policy rationale for such a move is even weaker. It is fine for the United States government to determine the purposes for which taxpayer funds may be expended -- and indeed, U.S. law has prohibited funding for the provision of abortion services for more than 25 years. However, when the arm of the government extends to dictating what individuals and organizations might do with their own funds, their own speech, their own freedom, a line has been crossed and core American values have been undermined.

Democratic values are not elusive ambitions, but rather clear and inviolable truths that guide the proper means of reconciling institutions of government with human nature. Indeed, the democratic revolution of the past decade has demonstrated the near universal appeal of those values. Perhaps unwittingly, President Bush has issued a policy that seriously compromises our values of freedom and free speech. In fact, because it would be unconstitutional if applied to U.S. organizations and unthinkable if applied to foreign governments, the Bush Administration's global gag rule applies only to non-governmental organizations outside the United States.

Those concerned with government intrusion would laugh out loud if someone proposed that the United States provide funding for domestic organizations only on the condition that they sacrifice the right to free expression. But that is precisely what is being proposed overseas. Irrespective of one's beliefs on issues of family planning or abortion, virtually everyone can agree that the United States should not be in the business of exporting restrictions on free speech that it condemns abroad and holds unconstitutional at home.

At a time when we celebrate the information age and increased access to information around the world, the Administration has taken a step to curtail the provision of health care information to women. The global gag rule denies federal funding to any foreign non-governmental organization using its own (non-taxpayer) funds to provide information or services related to abortion. This policy forces doctors overseas to break the Hippocratic oath -- they are coerced into denying women information about all of their medical options. The result of this policy will be to constrain the provision of international family planning services and -- ironically -- to increase the occurrence of unplanned pregnancies, and by extension the incidence of abortion.

I am certain that President Bush does not want to increase the incidence of abortion, but that will be the effect of his first policy act. He might have avoided this unintended result if he had taken the time to learn more about the issues involved. That the facts are unclear in the new White House was clearly reflected in statements made to the press by the Presidential spokesman, Ari Fleisher. Mr. Fleisher told the press that the policy was being issued because the President does not believe that taxpayer funds should be use to perform or promote abortions. If they had taken the time to review the law, the new Administration would have found that the President's Executive Order has nothing to do with taxpayer funding.

All of us want to see the Bush Administration succeed in building a spirit of cooperation and bipartisan accomplishment in Washington. To realize these aims, the new Administration needs to arm itself with the facts and seek public policy that forges common ground. Hasty, divisive orders from the Executive Branch are not a good start.

Ellen Marshall served as Senior Coordinator for Population Affairs at the U.S. State Department in the Clinton Administration. She lives in Boulder.

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