US global gag rule abortion policy 'killing women': IWHC

Report highlights 'devastating impact' of Trump's reinstatement of ban on foreign aid to groups that discuss abortion.

    A coalition of physicians, AIDS activists, medical students, and women's health and rights advocates protest against Trump's 'global gag rule' [File: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images]
    A coalition of physicians, AIDS activists, medical students, and women's health and rights advocates protest against Trump's 'global gag rule' [File: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images]

    The Trump administration's reinstatement and expansion of the global gag rule has "deprived women of essential healthcare" and is "ultimately killing" women worldwide, the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) said in a report released on Wednesday.

    "This deadly policy violates the rights of patients and ties the hands of providers," IWHC President Francoise Girard said in a statement. "After two years of implementation, the impact is clear: The Global Gag Rule reduces access to contraceptives and abortion care, leading to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and preventable deaths."

    US President Donald Trump reinstated the Reagan-era policy rule days after taking office in January 2017. The rule, also known as the "Mexico City policy", bans international organisations that receive US funding from providing abortion services or offering information about the procedure. The rule has traditionally been rescinded or rolled back by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican leaders.

    The Trump administration has also expanded the policy to include funding coming from the US Department of State, USAID and Department of Defense.

    This includes an estimated nine billion dollars aimed at the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria, the Zika virus and other health issues worldwide, reproductive rights groups have said.

    In March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would also crack down on NGOs that provide funding to other groups that provide or promote abortions. 

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    The IWHC report, which was released at the Women Deliver conference in Canada, found that since the gag rule's reinstatement two years ago, the policy "is reducing the quality and availability of care, particularly for marginalised communities".

    After conducting more than 170 interviews with individuals affected in Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and South Africa, the coalition found that "in all four countries, the policy has cut off access to both comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information services".

    In Nepal, for example, although the government has recognised the right to an abortion, staff at one global gag rule-compliant organisation is instructed to "not even talk about abortion in the community level or any other places they work", a managing director at the centre told IWHC.

    "Since we provide counselling, sometimes people try to talk about abortion with us. In such cases, we tell our staff to tell them that they don't know anything about it," the IWHC report quoted the director as saying.

    In Nigeria, which has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, IWHC said the global gag rule is "creating a more dangerous environment by limiting access to information about the relative safety of different methods and pushing safe abortion services further underground".

    In Kenya, IWHC said that two clients of an organisation that provides services to sex workers and other young women died after seeking unsafe methods to terminate their pregnancies.

    'Extreme anti-women agenda'

    Activists and reproductive rights groups have accused Trump, who has described himself as "strongly pro-life", of waging a war on women by reinstating and expanding the global gag rule, appointing federal judges who oppose abortion, attempting to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and appointing anti-abortion rights activists to key posts in federal department dealing with women's health. 

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    "The global gag rule is a reflection of the Trump administration's extreme anti-women agenda," IWHC's Girard said.

    A spokeswoman for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers aid, said the government was making sure it did not fund groups that "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning".

    Most of the groups that receive US government aid have agreed to the policy's conditions, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    "The United States remains committed to helping women and their children thrive, particularly in countries where the need is greatest," the USAID spokeswoman said.

    IWHC on Wednesday called on the US Congress to pass legislation that would permanently end the global gag rule.

    "US policymakers have the power to end this policy, and they must, because women's lives are on the line," Girard said.

    With additional reporting by Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath in Washington, DC.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies