On Monday, President Trump, like every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, reinstated the Mexico City Policy. Referred to as the Global Gag Order, the polic will conclusively ban international aid organisations funded by the United States government from providing abortions, information on abortions or abortion counselling. The ruling came a mere 48 hours after millions of women staged a worldwide protest against Trump in a multi-city Women’s March. The executive order has also punctured holes in almost a decade’s worth of progress made by US healthcare workers and women’s activists internationally.
Trump has upheld the ideological rhetoric that uses the derogatory phrase “pro-life/anti-choice” to drive a wedge into the machinery of aid organisations and healthcare workers funded by the US, paralysing one of their most essential functions, which is to bridge the gap in reproductive and maternal health. The resultant collapse has far-reaching effects in the developing world, affecting the social and economic indicators of a country. Currently, the Guttmacher Institute’s data for 2016 reveals that $607.5 million in US aid has been used for family planning, which has granted 27 million women access to a basket of contraceptive choices, averted 6 million unintended pregnancies, and prevented 2.3 million abortions.
As past experience shows, the motion is counterproductive. It does not reduce the number of abortions as originally intended: instead, it has sweeping repercussions that will be felt in the areas of family planning and reproductive health, cervical scans, HIV services, and maternal and child health. The order effectively incapacitates women, especially in developing countries where the need for quality family planning services are higher, and leaves them vulnerable to unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, post-abortion care, and a higher rate of maternal deaths.
Several studies have found evidence that supports the damaging effects of the Global Gag Order that would be felt by women. The study on abortion United States aid policy and induced abortion in sub-Saharan Africa conducted by three researchers from Stanford University, which focuses on women in the age group of 15 to 44 from 20 African countries, suggests the Mexico City Policy – named for the venue of the United Nations International Conference on Population where it was announced in 1984 – is associated with an increase in abortions. Another study conducted by Pathfinder International found that between 2001 and 2009, before the Obama administration rescinded the gag rule, 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East lost access to contraceptives donated by US-funded agencies and several family planning clinics were forced to cut down services, staff, or shut down completely.
India’s clarity and commitment to abortion as a legal right is a significant stand and a matter of pride. In this case, the Global Gag Order will restrict non-government organisations who receive funding from the United States from providing a service that Indian women have a right to, legally. Almost 25 percent of the funds of USAID India is directed towards family planning and reproductive health services including medical termination of pregnancy, training, and information, eduation and communication – this is a critical stream of funding and will be affected severely. In the past, during the Bush administration, the ban also led to restricting funds to countries with laws that support abortion for any health related programs. In India, all NGOs do not have access to USAID or international funding; therefore, we will not be affected too badly.
Hindering women’s agency
The resurrection of the Global Gag Order also hinders organisations from advocating for the liberalisation or decriminalisation of abortion, thus limiting the discussion or killing it altogether. This will effectively undo the progress that has been made in women’s health on a global scale with regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights, reinforcing the inherent right women have on their bodies, the identity of young girls and women, and their agency.
President Trump’s attitude to women’s rights fits well within the restrictive order that is designed to destabilise women. The Mexico City Policy has been a callous, political game of back-and-forth, a punishing game that a mostly male administration has played with the female body for more than 30 years. What cannot be said is the scope and scale of the regressive order and the damage it will bring in its wake.
The time has come once again to call to action governments in other countries and private foundations globally to give a responsible, fitting response by increasing the funding for abortion and family planning. The nature of support we must extend goes beyond the purview of financial assistance to include moral support. The impact of the Global Gag Rule on US-based organisations like Planned Parenthood and their work in providing a safe space for abortion and other family planning programs is nothing short of demonic. In the current scenario, we must applaud the example of defiance set by the Netherlands – their government has announced the launch of an international abortion fund of $600 million over four years, which will be crucial to healthcare workers in the coming months. International organisations like the United Nations Population Fund will need the support of a global community of champions to fulfill its responsibility to women.
The writer is executive director of the Population Foundation of India.