Ripping aside the Global Gag and speaking out on reproductive justice

22 February 2017

In the last couple of weeks, we have seen clearly how international development can be repurposed as both a mechanism by which blunt political pressure can be brought to bear across borders and as a reaffirmation of global values of women’s choice, empowerment and equality.

Access to abortion in developing countries is back on the agenda. As IDS has argued before in our IDS Bulletin ‘Unsafe Abortion: A Development Issue’, beyond the moralistic framing of this latest assault, access to abortion remains a question of human rights, democracy, public health and significantly impacts upon our ability to deliver development to those most at risk of extreme poverty.

With all the choreography one might expect from a US reality television star, President Donald Trump has spent his first three weeks in the White House rapidly firing out a succession of Executive Orders and foreign policy signals that has kept critics off-guard and unable to give due analysis to what he is proposing due to the sheer amount of activity that is coming forth. For those of us working in the particular areas that are targeted, we must take some responsibility to assess the impact these changes will have and draw them to public attention.

Impacts of the global gag rule

As might be expected from a President whose candidacy had been dogged by accusations of sexism, rumours of sexual assault and whose inauguration crowd was dwarfed by a Women’s March the following day protesting for protections for women’s rights to health, safety and families, he has chosen to target women's right to abortion. However, for now this still remains domestically protected by the Roe Vs Wade Supreme Court case in 1973, so he has resurrected the US Government’s Mexico City policy, known as the ‘Global Gag Rule’ that denies funds for reproductive health services to any foreign organisation that provides legal abortion counselling or services or even contributes to public debate on the topic and signposts individuals to services.

Truthfully, Democratic and Republican Presidencies have played partisan political tennis with this policy for the last few administrations, not least because it signals to voters their position on access to abortion with no significant loss of domestic political capital. This time however, alongside the $607 million that would be spent on international family planning activities, the US Government is folding in any global health aid monies across all departments and agencies. Effectively, that forces any organisation that received any of the $10.3 billion spent on other health outcomes, like HIV/AIDS, malaria or malnutrition to comply with this draconian, anti-choice policing of NGOs. A side by side analysis of the Bush Vs Trump Global Gag Rule (pdf) shows exactly what is at stake this time.

The impact of this decision has been fairly well-documented, not least by the compelling testimony of Sharon Camp of PAI (Champions of Global Reproductive Rights), who travelled to twelve countries where the impact of the Global Gag was felt most, including the curtailing of critical training of doctors in those countries where abortion was already legal.

Regardless of the law and the provision of abortion services, women will still continue to fight for their right to choose and if they cannot access these formally, they will turn to unsafe abortion with all the risks that entails. Development interventions should always be evidence-based and a policy choice this ill-thought through and moralistic, which chills open debate and punishes organisations working holistically across health systems, cannot lead to good healthcare outcomes. It is also likely that these organisations now drawn into the Global Gag Rule will censor and restrict themselves in anticipating the loss of major US funding because the cuts they risk could literally impact on their ability to provide life-saving support to communities.

A springboard for action

This is why we should welcome the ‘She Decides’ Global Fundraising Initiative launched by the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen. It aims to try and ensure that those organisations affected by the US policy can continue to fund reproductive health initiatives in developing countries and encourages governments, private businesses, foundations and individual donations to try and match the shortfall. It can represent a concrete way in which we can reaffirm our commitments to women's empowerment within global institutions and priorities, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are currently under threat from reactionary, nationalistic and misogynistic political forces.

Comments last week by Bill and Melinda Gates that reiterated how essential these programmes are yet conceded that philanthropic organisations cannot take up the slack were dispiriting. The truth is that the scale of funding under threat will be hard to offset by this initiative, important though it is, so it needs to be used as a springboard for a wider debate amongst social justice, feminist, sex worker and LGBT movements about how the growing intersectional activism that is developing amongst them can be mobilised on issues such as this, where a common threat to those exercising their sexual and reproductive rights are being actively punished and constrained. As Marlene Gerber Fried has argued, there has been some maturing of dialogues between social movements in recent years and solidarity with the Dutch initiative is a good first step in operationalising these in a rapidly changing political context.

To practically contribute to efforts to highlight the dangers of this decision, consider joining the Day of Action against #TrumpGlobalGag on Tuesday 28 February from 10.00am – 12.00pm EST on Twitter where the impacts of this pernicious decision will be debated and publicised. Individuals can also contribute to the ‘She Decides’ Global Fundraising Initiative.

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