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Silencing Progress: The Siljander Amendment and Global Censorship of Abortion Speech

For the last four years, the Trump administration has waged a war on sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world. Some of the tools in its arsenal are US foreign assistance restrictions on family planning and abortion. To be sure, many of these restrictions pre-date Trump, but this administration had a laser focus on weaponizing them to undermine and attack the fundamental human rights of women.

The change in US leadership with the Biden administration offers a chance for renewed attention and pressure on the need to repeal these odious restrictions, some of which are better known and understood than others.

Much has been said on the Global Gag Rule and to a lesser extent the Helms Amendment (“Helms”). However, little has been written or is understood about the Siljander Amendment (“Siljander”), which prohibits lobbying for or against abortion with US foreign assistance funds.

Even so, the Siljander Amendment has appeared in recent news: In August 2020, 60 US Senators and Representatives signed a letter to John Barsa, Acting Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (“USAID”) urging enforcement of Siljander by reducing “US contributions to UN Secretary-General and to UN organizations that lobby for abortion…in amounts proportional to their abortion-related lobbying,” also referring to “a fictitious international right to abortion.” This flawed assessment comes, unsurprisingly, on the heels of the US government cutting assistance to the Organization of American States (“OAS”) in 2019 based on erroneous claims that its agencies engaged in lobbying for abortion in violation of the Siljander Amendment.

In light of these concerning developments, and with the new Biden administration taking office, this factsheet is intended to provide background information regarding the Siljander Amendment, how it has been applied – namely, to censor constitutional and legal reform and fundamental human rights – and why it should ultimately be repealed, along with all other US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance.

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