UNITED STATES: Bush imperils Third World women's lives



In January 2001, US President George Bush reinstated the "global gag" rule on international family planning assistance that the US administration of Ronald Reagan had announced at the UN-sponsored Second International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984. The rule denies US government aid or funding to any institution or non-government organisation that provides abortion services or provides information to the public about the availability of abortion.

Organisations may also not lobby their national governments to maintain the legal status of abortion (where applicable) or present an opinion supporting the decriminalisation of abortion.

Health services and clinics throughout the Third World are being threatened with closure if they refuse to accept conditions which violate basic accepted medical ethics. Health organisations and professionals in the area are being forced to choose between funds to keep operating, and their right to provide medical information that they consider most appropriate for a patient's situation.

When initially implemented, the "Mexico City ruling", as the global gag rule is called by its supporters, was supplemented by a range of other anti-choice and anti-family planning measures. Federal family planning programs were put under the control of people with a stated personal opposition to family planning. Congressional hearings were held to determine whether foetuses should have the same legal and constitutional rights as pregnant women.

The purpose of the global gag policy was stated quite openly as being to reduce women's access to abortion. In fact, subsequent research indicates that the policy has merely increased the cost and decreased the quality of medical care for the procedure, including post-abortion and contraceptive counselling.

Pressure on Third World

The global gag rule is only one example of how the US brings its immense wealth to bear in pressuring the Third World to conform to US government anti-abortion policies.

In 1973, for example, the US Foreign Assistance Act was amended, prohibiting the use of federal US money either for the provision of abortion services or to "motivate or coerce any person to practice abortion" — which could include paying doctors to perform an abortion.

Since 1981, organisations have been prohibited from lobbying for abortion services, or even conducting research into abortion, with US funds. The difference now is that Washington is prohibiting an organisation from using even its own funds for these purposes.

Only two organisations have refused to bow to the demands of the US government. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the Family Planning International Assistance (FPIA) not only refused to go along with the financial blackmail, but campaigned strongly against the gag rule. As a result, their collaborative relationship with the US Agency for International Development was terminated and they lost millions of dollars in financial support.

Governments receiving money from the US government are also affected by the global gag rule. They were required to separate US funds so that no money went to abortion-related activities. At the same time, the rule cannot apply to US organisations because this would be an unconstitutional restriction on free speech and a medical procedure legal in the United States, as upheld by the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v Wade ruling.

When Bill Clinton became US president in 1993, he rescinded the gag rule. This meant that the IPPF received funding from the US government for the first time in nearly 10 years. At the end of November 1999, however, Clinton capitulated to demands from the Republican-controlled Congress that the gag rule be passed into law in exchange for the payment of long-overdue UN dues. While Clinton waived many of the restrictions in the law, feminists and family planning groups recognised that as long as the law remained, other, more reactionary, interpretations could be applied to it.

This is what happened in 2001. Within days of taking office, George Bush junior reinstated the funding ban.

Unsafe abortions

While abortion is a safe and simple procedure when performed in safe conditions by medically qualified people, World Health Organisation figures from 1998 show that, across the Third World, tens of thousands of women die each year as a direct result of unsafe abortions, while hundreds of thousands of others suffer haemorrhages, infection, infertility and ruptured internal organs.

In Africa, women have a one-in-150 chance of dying after an unsafe abortion, and 13% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion. According to the WHO, unsafe abortion results in the deaths of about 30,000 African women every year. In Ethiopia and Nigeria the figures are staggering — almost half of the maternal deaths in these countries result from complications from unsafe abortion and insufficient medical care after the procedure.

In Latin America, over 20% of maternal deaths are attributable to unsafe abortions. Each year, more than four million abortions are performed throughout Latin America, the vast majority of them illegal and dangerous.

Figures from countries in Asia are just as appalling. Twelve per cent of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions in this part of the world.

In Nepal, abortion is classified as murder, and abortion for any reason is punishable by imprisonment. As a result, two-thirds of all women in Nepalese prisons have served prison terms for garbaphat — abortion and infanticide, which are classified as the same thing. Not a single man has ever been punished under these laws, either as a provider of abortion services or in any other capacity. Women can serve 20 years in prison for having an abortion, while men who commit murder serve an average of 10 years. In a country with a per capita income of about US$200, abortions can cost up to $400, forcing poor women to rely on dangerous techniques in unsafe conditions, or self-induced abortions. It is estimated that six women die every day in Nepal due to botched abortions.

Only one-fifth of the world's population live in countries — such as Britain, India, Japan and Cuba — that permit abortion on broad and liberally interpreted social, economic and medical grounds. Approximately 18% of the world's population live in countries that allow an abortion to be legally performed only to save the woman's life.

Clinics forced to close

As a result of Bush's reinstatement of the global gag rule, three abortion clinics in the Lusaka region of Zambia have closed this year. Five family planning clinics have closed in Kenya, after refusing to abide by the US State Department's demand that they ignore abortion as a possible form of birth control. The closing of just one of these clinics left 300,000 people with no accessible medical services.

The IPPF has argued that, far from reducing abortions, the rule increases the number. This, they believe, will be a result of the defunding and closing of organisations and centres that disseminate birth control information and devices such as condoms. The number of unwanted pregnancies will rise, forcing women to seek out local unlicensed and untrained abortion providers.

Bush junior came to the White House with a stated position of "compassionate conservatism". But the real agenda of his administration is clear — undermining women's choices and physical autonomy, and asserting even greater domination over the people of the Third World through financial blackmail.

While the US government has so far spent more than $20 billion on financing the war on Iraq, it is cutting medical services to people in its own country and across the world. The bodies, lives and well-being of women are not only low priorities for the most powerful government in the world, they are being used as pawns in a global war to extend the reactionary social agenda of the Bush administration.

The global gag rule attacks women's right to control their health and fertility, control which is essential if women are to have control over their lives. The fact that the Bush gang is attempting to prevent health service providers even discussing abortion with women patients is an indication of its determination to prevent women having access to necessary information if they are to make reproductive decisions free from blackmail and intimidation.

From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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