Women's health

The Trump gag rule hits India: Organisations asked to declare they do not provide abortion services

Organisations fear they will not even be allowed to advocate for safe abortions – an integral part of maternal health and family planning.

Non-governmental organisations in India have been asked to self-declare that they do not perform abortions or provide abortion services while submitting proposals to the United States Agency for International Development. USAID is the body responsible for administering civilian foreign aid given by the United States government.

In January, soon after he came to power, United States President Donald Trump had reinstated the contentious global gag rule that stops all federal funding to international NGOs that perform abortions, provide information on abortions or advocate for a change in US abortion laws. Such organisations would become ineligible for US funds even for projects that are unrelated to abortions. In March, USAID revised its policy to restrict funding as per the gag rule.

Within weeks, organisations in India that receive or seek USAID funding have been asked to sign self-certifications stating:

“Organization does not provide abortion services, counsel or refer for abortion, or advocate for the liberalization of abortion laws with US Govt. or non-US Govt. funds, including its own funds.” 

Assault on women’s health services

Abortion, or the medical termination of pregnancy, has been legal in India since 1971 under certain circumstances. Abortions can be performed in the first 20 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy. Even though abortions are provided free of cost in government health institutions, they account for eight percent of India’s maternal mortality because many are conducted in unsafe conditions by unregistered practitioners, resulting in infections.

Organisations working with women’s health and maternal health are concerned about the new policy. Toeing the USAID line will mean consciously blocking information about abortion procedures and not referring a woman who wants an abortion to a facility that will perform the procedure safely and legally. They will not even be allowed to advocate for safe abortions – an integral part of maternal health and family planning.

Critics of the global gag rule have long said that you cannot separate abortion services from maternal healthcare, family planning and women’s health, all of which will be badly affected.

“This rule is an assault on both the users and the providers of health services and forces providers to limit options or to reduce access or both,” said Pallavi Gupta, programme coordinator for health with Oxfam India, which works on health rights. Unwanted pregnancies have a range of ramifications in communities that Oxfam works with, affecting health, gender dynamics, livelihoods and human rights.

“Will the (USAID-funded) organisation turn a blind eye to the woman’s need or refuse to provide information about her reproductive rights?” asked Gupta. “By withholding information that is well within the country’s law, this rule makes the organisation a party to the woman’s distress as access to information about reproductive rights is limited and abortion continues to be a taboo.”

Who gets affected?

One of the organisations that receives USAID funding and works with the government’s family planning programme is the international non-profit Jhpeigo that is affiliated with John Hopkins University. Jhpeigo operates in 12 states including Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Delhi and provides technical assistance on promoting contraception use and post-abortion contraception and scaling up contraception-based family planning. However, it does not provide or promote abortion services. A Jhpeigo spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Among the partners of the USAID-funded Maternal and Child Survival Program is Population Services International, which receives funding for a family planning project called Saving Lives at Birth that involves inserting intrauterine devices after delivery. Marshall Stowell, vice president of external relations and communications at Population Services International said that the gag rule would not affect the organisation since does not provide abortion services or counseling.

Many organisations like Ipas and International Planned Parenthood Federation in India consciously do not accept USAID funding. Ipas works with the central government to provide comprehensive abortion care in India. “These organisations do not want to be held hostage to these anti-abortion rules,” said Vinoj Manning, executive director of Ipas Development Foundation. “Besides, they keep changing every four years when the government changes.”

USAID also works closely with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The government’s family planning programme will not be affected, said Dr SK Sikdar, deputy commissioner with the ministry. He said that the government relied on non-profits only for technical assistance. “We hardly depend on foreign aid for our programmes,” he said.

However, the full list of health and family planning organisations that receive USAID funds in India is not available.

A USAID spokesperson said, “As in the past, USAID expects to successfully reprogram any family planning funds in the event an organisation ceases to receive USAID family planning assistance because of the policy.”

When asked about the possibility of USAID-funded organisations having to talk about abortion in a community, the spokesperson said that organisations receiving family planning assistance are expected to abide by the provisions of the gag rule. “We cannot speculate on organisations’ decisions whether to accept those provisions,” the spokesperson said.

Said Vinod Manning of Ipas: “When US decides that through their funding they will inhibit Indian agencies from doing anything around abortion, it is contrary to the Indian policy on abortions and therefore an impingement on our sovereignty.”

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.