A new policy in a company, household, or the federal government will only have impact if people hear about it and understand it. Consider that formerly incarcerated Floridians have been eligible to vote since 2018, but information hurdles have resulted in many being unaware of their new enfranchisement. The Affordable Care Act and the insurance exchanges it enabled have been around since 2014, yet they remain enigmas to many Americans, keeping them from signing up for coverage. These communication failures can render good policy useless, and even harmful.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than in sexual and reproductive health, a highly politicized field where lives are at risk and critics of progressive change see information gaps as an invitation to spread misinformation.
Recently, M Booth Health and several of our clients faced the welcome challenge of amplifying the news of a crucial global policy change. At the end of January, President Biden signed a memorandum rescinding funding restrictions known as the “global gag rule.” Also called the Mexico City Policy, this rule has been in place on and off since President Reagan first enacted it in 1984, and has been either rescinded or reinstated by new presidential administrations, according to party affiliation. In its most recent form, it prohibited foreign NGOs receiving any form of U.S. global health assistance from providing abortion services or referrals or advocating for abortion access – even if these activities were carried out in places where abortion is legal and with separate, non-U.S. funding.
The global gag rule has impeded access to critical, life-saving health services in countries dependent on U.S. foreign aid – we know this from the first-hand accounts of our clients and their partners – and the flip-flopping back and forth has made matters worse. When President Obama repealed the global gag rule, many affected organizations didn’t know about the change or didn’t trust that the policy was gone for good and continued to restrict their activities. When President Trump reinstated and expanded the rule, so much confusion ensued that some organizations and individuals unnecessarily cut off ties with sexual and reproductive health groups out of fear that they could be penalized, destroying alliances and weakening civil society and social justice movements.
While many celebrated President Biden’s decisive action in removing the global gag rule, it will take more than a signature to reverse the policy’s devastating impact. Our work, and the work of our clients, has focused on making sure that sexual and reproductive health advocates, their allies, and organizations and individuals affected by the global gag rule know that it is gone – through a combination of op-eds, media stories, and webinars aimed at and featuring the voices of those who have felt the impact of funding restrictions first hand. Communicating this policy change on diverse platforms and through diverse messengers is ensuring that this vital information reaches those affected in all corners of the world.
We are also communicating the reversal early, and with a deliberate focus on dispelling fears, and acknowledging the potential for a future U.S. administration to bring back the global gag rule unless Congress takes action to ensure that the gag rule can never be reinstated (e.g., by passing the Global HER Act). Because, we believe that conveying policy change is only part of the communications challenge. Our larger task is to ensure that policy reform aimed at improving access to health care actually leads to healthier people.