Donald Trump’s executive order restricting abortion will have a chilling effect on women’s rights around the globe, argues Sally Keeble
For sheer viciousness, Donald Trump’s choice of victim for his presidential bullying takes some beating.
Picture a woman in Sierra Leone, pregnant with a child whose birth may threaten her own life and those of her surviving children, who has no regular source of income or food, and who, if she has a home, probably has no access to clean water, let alone sanitation. And who for the sake of her family, if not herself, wants an abortion.
She is Trump’s target. She will be the one who pays the price for that executive order signed by a man of unimaginable wealth and the greatest concentration of power on the face of the planet. The order, the third he signed on his first day at work, cuts funds for health agencies that provide or promote abortion.
Labour has a key role to play here. We need to push our government, a world leader in international development, to join the like-minded Dutch with an international fund to plug the gap in funding for birth control and abortion in developing countries. And to ask that our prime minister puts this on her agenda when she becomes the first foreign leader to meet him.
The Mexico City policy, or global gag, was first introduced by Ronald Reagan and then renewed by George W Bush. Trump has tightened the gag. Instead of just applying it to US overseas aid that goes to family planning, he has ordered that it should apply to all the agencies that provide health care. So up from $575m in 40 countries to $9bn in about 60 countries.
There are two immediate and brutal consequences.
One is the practical impact on services for women in countries in the developing world who still pay a heavy price for the international community’s failure to make good on its former development goals.
In the poorest countries, especially those affected by conflict, maternal death rates remain tragically high. One of the cruellest legacies of poverty and conflict in Sierra Leone is a maternal death rate of 1,360 for every 100,000 live births, according to the World Bank. This is some three times the average for Sub-Saharan Africa, where having a baby is 50 times as risky for a woman as for the average in the rich countries of the world. In the United Kingdom for example, the comparative figure is nine. In the US, home of Trump, it is thought to be high at 10.
And for women who decide they do not want to continue with a pregnancy, the alternatives may be equally bleak. In the developed world an estimated three per cent of abortions are unsafe, in the developing world it is 55 per cent. Trump’s order will not stop women having abortions. It will just mean even more of those abortions will be unsafe.
The Cairo agenda on population and development established consensus across a surprising range of countries on women’s access to reproductive health services. The US under Bush’s presidency found itself isolated during a round of recall conferences in the early 2000s when it asserted that as the major funder of global healthcare, it would enforce its pro-life values.
By Trump’s standards, Bush was conciliatory. Yet Trump is no lifelong pro-lifer. In 1999 he described himself as being strongly pro-choice, and a supporter of partial birth abortion.
The second, equally vicious, but more insidious consequences of the executive order is the gag. Overseas health agencies in receipt of US will not be allowed to provide information about abortion or advocate for pro-choice policies.
Advocacy is an essential part of improving health care for women in poor countries. And the sight of the American president taking aim at the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International is a potent deterrent to smaller organisations from testing out his determination to enforce his will or vent his spite.
So the voices that speak might out for that woman in Sierra Leone, advocate for her to be able to get a safe abortion – as a starting point for her to being able to escape from her poverty – will be silenced.
And that is why the women’s movement, that was out in such strength last Saturday, needs to speak out.
Sally Keeble is a former minister. She tweets at @sally_keeble
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