On January 23, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order that reinstates a policy known as the global gag rule, which bans U.S. funding for international health organizations or NGOs that provide abortion or even discuss (hence the term “gag” rule) access to safe abortion.
Sounds like a victory for those in the pro-life camp, because abortion will be more difficult for women to access. Our current administration will tout it also as a win; they will frame it the way pro-lifers want it: You voted for the right candidate, now innocent lives will be saved. You have done your duty!
That is where many anti-abortion folks will stop. At duty done. Without looking to see if this policy actually reduces abortion. Without concern for how our American abortion politics play out in the life of a woman and her family in Zambia (or down the street at Planned Parenthood for that matter).
Because while we, dear privileged ones, are able to have sex and plan our family, with access to contraception and knowledge of natural family planning methods, and while we can afford visits to the midwife and doctor, and have resources and information on how to protect ourselves from STDs, the woman in Zambia may have none of that (and the woman down the street relied on Planned Parenthood for that). They are just two among the 200 million women who do not want to become pregnant but have no way of getting contraception.
The injustice of this rocks me to my core: That a woman who has the ability to space and time her children, and plan for safe childbirth will support withholding this human right to the woman in the developing world (and to the woman of low socio-economic status in her own town).
That is exactly what the global gag order does, it dangerously reduces resources for the world’s women. Women will lose their community health clinic and/or their access to birth control, sex education, reproductive health information, maternal care and HIV testing. Some will lose their entire health care.
Please, if you are inclined to claim victory on the gag order, know what you are claiming. First, understand that it’s already illegal under the Helms Amendment (since 1973) to use US government money to directly fund abortions. The global gag rule, first implemented under President Ronald Reagan in 1984, made it illegal for any organization that even discusses safe abortion to receive federal funding, cuts going far beyond abortion. It was rescinded under President Bill Clinton, reinstated under President George W. Bush, and rescinded again under President Barack Obama. In thirty three years, there has been absolutely no evidence that the policy reduces abortion. During the Bush years, clinics were forced to cut back not only on family planning and HIV prevention, but also critical obstetric care and malaria treatment. Researchers from Stanford University published a study suggesting that the policy was linked to a dramatic rise in abortion rates.
When you take away education and birth control, unintended pregnancies are going to increase and that means the number of women seeking abortion will increase. Both the EngenderHealth and PAI organizations have followed and documented the detrimental effects of the global gag rule.
Claiming victory on the gag order would be like Trump claiming, “nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
Indeed, nobody as president has taken such a dramatic measure against global women’s human rights with his move to not only reinstate the global gag, but to expand it to include funds for all global health, not just family planning funding. Experts say that this unparalleled version of the policy will apply to roughly $9.5 billion dollars as opposed to roughly $575 million.
In Zambia where a woman’s lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 79 (compared to a country like Finland where it is 1 in 22,000), this could equal death, orphaned children, disease and communities devastated. Which is why on January 24th, as I receive the news, Global Gag Order Reinstated, my stomach drops to my feet as if I am falling, falling, falling. “I am furious,” I think. But before I can even hear my fury, I feel the pain of the entire world. It happens in a single moment. A pause in time where I am held, pressed into the pattern of keeping women oppressed, perpetuating the cycles of unintentional pregnancy and maternal death, proceeding on with poverty and the patriarchy. Grief so pronounced, that when I purge it, I will never forget it.
So I will not be silent, despite the bashing that will happen. Despite the bashing that’s already happening! Like when people post that American women ought to stop whining, take responsibility and stop marching, citing the conditions of women in other countries to prove their case, they place woman against woman, and I will not participate in that thinking. You cannot use our sisters against us, like our actions are in neglect of them, as if we don’t care, because the truth is that we care so deeply that our stomachs fall out of our bodies when we hear that our sisters’ health will be so horribly compromised. That’s why we marched. For the health and wellbeing of ALL women.
And P.S.,the American woman’s reproductive health rights are at risk! Despite the fact that the US abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level since Roe v. Wade, driven by improved contraception use (resulting in fewer unintended pregnancies), the Trump administration threatens our access to contraception by defunding Planned Parenthood, and repealing the Affordable Care Act that requires insurers to cover IUDs and other contraception. From a president who vowed he will overturn Roe v. Wade, we can’t expect that our coverages will be a concern.
Proponents of pro-choice and pro-life, we have to come together in order to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion. We have to be partners, looking at what actually works and what does not.
We need to support international organizations and grassroots women's groups that educate women and girls and can work to fill in the gap in women's health care.