By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, Feb 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women in the U.S. Congress took formal steps on Thursday to lift a gag rule imposed by President Donald Trump that has slashed access to abortion globally, introducing legislation that would permanently shut down the controversial policy.
The gag rule bans U.S.-funded groups around the world from discussing abortion, forcing them to accept the restriction or reject it and lose funding.
It has forced the closure of health clinics, outreach programs and refugee services by charities, risking the health of millions of women, experts say.
The proposed law would permanently repeal the rule, which has been used by U.S. presidents for decades to signal their stance on abortion rights, a touchstone issue in U.S. politics.
First enacted in 1984, the policy has been backed by Republican presidents while Democrats, most recently former President Barack Obama, have revoked it.
Trump signed an executive order reinstating the gag rule on his fourth day in office in January 2017.
"It has a tremendous negative impact on women," Representative Nita Lowey, a sponsor of the legislation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Permanent repeal of this anti-woman policy is more important now than ever before."
The record number of women in this year's Congress give traction to the bill, first introduced in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in 2017, Lowey said.
Nearly a quarter of the House - 102 members - are women. Almost all are Democrats, facing off with Trump's Republican Party after winning House control in last fall's elections.
"The power of over a hundred women certainly makes a difference," Lowey said.
The measure faces a more difficult path in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The move comes the day after the White House announced a women's global empowerment initiative headed by Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and adviser, involving U.S. agencies and private businesses.
"To push an anti-abortion agenda abroad while paying lip service to women's empowerment is the height of hypocrisy," Lowey said.
"I wasn't invited," she added.
Reintroduction of the bill was announced by Lowey's office and that of Senator Jeanne Shaheen, with 150 cosponsors.
Under Trump, the gag rule was expanded beyond family planning to funding for all global health assistance, including programs for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and immunizations.
One major family planning group, Marie Stopes International, has estimated the gag rule would deny some 1.7 million women globally access to its services.
The U.S.-based Center for Family and Human Rights, which opposes abortion, said in an email that foreign aid "should not be used to harm women and end the lives of their pre-born children.
"It's unfortunate that these members of Congress are motivated to provide assistance programs that are so destructive," it said. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Jason Fields
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