The Global Gag Rule: Context, Consequences and Counterweights

I had some doubts on writing about the United States, and specifically about Donald Trump, again this month; I already wrote an article on Trump and white women voters back in December, and the whole purpose of this column is to address issues facing women in all different parts of the world. In light of recent events, however, I felt it was justified. The Trump administration’s attack on women’s rights may have been signed into US law, but the consequences extend far beyond the USA – as, thankfully, does the outrage and backlash generated.

As I write this, it has still been under three weeks since Trump’s inauguration. Already, it’s safe to say he’s made his mark. Aside from the Muslim Ban (sorry, ‘extreme vetting’) and the infamous wall, one of the measures to have garnered the most international attention is Trump’s reinstatement of the ‘Global Gag Rule’, formally the Mexico City Policy. This is the policy to withhold US government aid funding from all foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with any link to abortion – be this offering abortion themselves, referring women elsewhere or simply providing education on the existence of safe abortions. The policy has been in action twice before, under Ronald Reagan from 1984 to 1993 and George Bush from 2001 to 2009, during which periods there is no evidence to suggest an overall reduction in abortions. It has, however, been linked to increases in unwanted pregnancies (due to reduced access to contraception), unsafe abortions and maternal deaths.

According to the estimations of NGO Marie Stopes International, the gag rule is likely to cause around 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths during Trump’s first term. This will also detract from vital LGBT services in countries such as India, where homosexuality is illegal and health groups have become increasingly reliant upon US funding to deliver discreet and effective services. Young lesbian and bisexual women are also vulnerable to other effects of the policy, as according to the US National Centre for Lesbian Rights they are between two and ten times more likely to get pregnant than their heterosexual counterparts. They are also significantly more likely to experience sexual assault, often stemming from the belief that this can ‘reverse’ homosexuality. As if all of this wasn’t damning enough, Trump has actually extended the influence of the gag rule, from family planning funding only to all global health funding – meaning this will now directly impact upon efforts to promote nutrition, sanitation, and the treatment and control of such life-threatening diseases as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and Zika.

If any positives at all are to be taken from this situation, they are certainly not from the order itself, but from the international responses it has elicited. Over 140 diverse organisations  have signed a Coalition Statement in opposition to the policy, protesting against the use of foreign aid ‘to limit women’s access to healthcare or to censor free speech’, and political figures all over the world are already coming together to plan measures to fill (or at least reduce) the immense gap left by withdrawals of US funding. Just one day after the order was signed, the Netherlands announced the establishment of a global fund to assist women in accessing abortion services, claiming already to be ‘in talks’ with 15 to 20 countries from Europe, Africa and South America. Since then, a specifically European alliance has also been formed, led by Danish develop minister Ulla Tørnæs. Denmark itself has made a commitment of 75 million kroner (£8.6 million) to the cause, and is one of eight European countries (including the Netherlands and the UK) to have signed a joint letter to the EU Commission urging them to at least match this total.

These efforts and more will be discussed in Brussels on the 2nd March, when representatives from around 50 countries are set to meet at women’s conference ‘She Decides’ in order to discuss the way forward. The conference will also feature talks from intergovernmental organisations and private actors, including girls and women with direct experience of the services under threat. Its aims, as described by deputy Prime Minister of Sweden (and co-host) Isabella Lövin, are to stand up for women’s rights, to mobilise political and financial support, and to show there is ‘a counterweight’ to ‘worrying developments’ in the United States and elsewhere.

The existence of this counterweight is somewhat reassuring – though perhaps not so much to the millions of people who will nonetheless suffer as a result of the gag rule (to say nothing of Trump’s other policies). Still, coordinated counterefforts – both grassroots and governmental, national and international – are and will continue to be essential over the next four years, for those who wish to uphold the rights of women, immigrants and minorities. These were all causes officially supported by the 21st January Women’s Marches, in which it is estimated up to two million people worldwide (and 500,000 in Washington alone) took part.

The President may be an immensely powerful individual, but he has a vast and widespread opposition, at least in theory. It is important that this opposition remain active, in both words and deeds, however hopeless it may sometimes feel. Donald Trump must not go unchallenged.

[Chloe Spence]

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