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Trump's 'global gag rule' killing women by depriving them of crucial abortion advice, report finds

'Global gag rule reduces access to contraceptives and abortion care, leading to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and preventable deaths,' says campaigner

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 06 June 2019 08:54 BST
Report by the International Women’s Health Coalition finds the controversial measure is having a 'devastating impact' in Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal and South Africa
Report by the International Women’s Health Coalition finds the controversial measure is having a 'devastating impact' in Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal and South Africa (Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s global gag rule is depriving women of vital information about healthcare, medical treatment and effectively killing them, a damning new report has found.

Donald Trump reinstated a policy known as the Mexico City Policy – also known as the global gag rule – on his fourth day in office which dates back to the Reagan administration. It requires foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive US family planning funds to certify they do not provide abortions or give abortion advice.

A report by the International Women’s Health Coalition has now found the controversial measure is having a “devastating impact” in Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal and South Africa – depriving women of their right to make choices about their bodies.

“This deadly policy violates the rights of patients and ties the hands of providers,” Francoise Girard, president of the women and girls’ human rights organisation, said.

“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.”

She added: “The global gag rule is a reflection of the Trump administration’s extreme anti-women agenda, and a rejection of evidence, rights, and national health priorities. US policymakers have the power to end this policy, and they must, because women’s lives are on the line.”

Campaigners found the global gag rule forces NGOs to make the difficult choice between providing honest and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care or receiving vital US funding.

Researchers, who carried out more than 170 interviews with individuals affected by the policy, found the global gag rule is reducing the quality and availability of care – particularly for marginalised communities.

In all four countries, the policy has cut off access to both comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services. One interviewee in South Africa said the global gag rule “promotes unsafe abortion”.

In Kenya, an organisation that serves sex workers and other young women was forced to stop providing abortion information and referrals. Two clients died after resorting to unsafe methods to terminate their pregnancies.

Researchers found the policy directly conflicts with national laws and threatens governments’ ability to protect the human rights and health of its populace.

It has forced the early closure of a US government-supported project intended to boost access to contraceptives and other services in 11 remote districts in Nepal, despite the country having a progressive abortion law. In South Africa, it has meant a national sexuality education curriculum under development will exclude any mention of abortion, even though the right to abortion is protected by the country’s constitution.

The global gag rule “stigmatizes and silences” the voices of organisations that work on abortion as well as emboldening anti-abortion ideologues in all four countries, researchers said. Documents in Kenya and South Africa show there has been an uptick in funding to organisations that deliver abstinence-only education and hold extreme anti-rights views. Researchers noted this has shifted policy conversations from an emphasis on human rights and bodily autonomy to discussion around religious values.

The study found even individuals from faith-based groups that hold anti-abortion views recognise the damaging impact of this “ideologically driven policy”. In Nigeria, a representative from a faith-based youth organisation recognised the global gag rule deprvies women of the information they require in order to make safe and informed decisions – ultimately increasing maternal deaths.

In March, the Trump administration extended the gag, stating that any organisation counselling women on abortion and using funds from elsewhere – even from its own government or a donor in another country – will no longer be qualified for any US funding.

Mr Trump had already expanded the reach of the funding ban to apply to all US healthcare assistance – totalling about $6bn (£4.5bn).

But the Trump administration announced it was expanding its anti-abortion policies – cutting funding to the Organisation of American States (OAS) and prohibiting the use of US tax dollars to lobby for or against abortion rights.

The extension of the policy does not just cut funding to foreign NGOs directly involved in abortions or abortion rights advocacy, but also those who fund or support other groups which provide or discuss abortion. The change applies to all global health organisations. HIV and children’s charities must sign up to the pledge – along with those running sexual and reproductive health clinics.

The move was fiercely criticised by abortion rights campaigners and Democrats who say the gag rule infringes on free speech.

“There is no end to the depths of the Trump administration’s cruelty. Millions of women ... will be arbitrarily left without care due to this shameful decision,” US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted.

Studies have found the Mexico City Policy leads to increases in abortion rates because of cuts to contraception use and closures of health clinics.

Researchers say the policy leads to more deaths of mothers and babies because it also forces women into having unsafe backstreet abortions. Rights groups say the expansion of the rule means NGOs providing services to prevent and treat malaria, HIV and other infectious diseases have been massively affected.

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