The afternoon of Jan 23, I was sitting in class.
I was in class because I am a very blessed woman who can attend university and prepare for a career in a scientific field in America, thanks to my parents who pay for my tuition and medical insurance.
While I was waiting for class to start, I received a news notification that Donald Trump had just signed an executive order to bring the “Global Gag Rule,” otherwise known as the “Mexico City Policy” originally introduced during the Reagan administration, back from the dead.
Pro-life advocates may support this recent move, thinking it is helping to prevent abortions and is a generally safe global move to make. However, if you sincerely educate yourself on the extent of this policy, you will quickly find that it is is, at its roots, harmful.
This rule impacts far more people than what idealistic pro-life conservatives believe. According to headlines you may have read, the policy is “anti-abortion.” These headlines mask what this policy truly does. The gag rule blocks all USAID monies from going to health, health-education, family planning and women’s clinics overseas when clinics have anything at all to do with abortion. This includes providing information about abortions, performing abortions, or counseling women on their decision whether or not to have an abortion.
I suppose you might say it’s a good thing that U.S. monies, that is, U.S. taxpayers’ monies, shouldn’t be funding abortions overseas, but here’s the thing – they never were.
Since 1973 and the implementation of the Helms Amendment, it has been illegal for any foreign aid monies to be used in funding abortion costs and state-funded clinics cannot persuade patients to undergo abortions, no matter the instances through which the patient became pregnant.
That means that even women who may have been raped by family members were not to be counseled that abortions were the best thing for them, and could not have abortions if funding came from the U.S.
So what is the point of the gag rule?
Many conservatives in the Reagan administration thought the Helms Amendment wasn’t enough. Not only could our money not be used to fund abortions, it couldn’t be used for the same non-governmental organizations that had any ties at all to abortion education, counseling or procedures.
So, the Mexico City Policy was put in place as an executive order-controlled rule that has been turned on and off by each successive administration since. Today, Trump brought it back after the longest period of suspension under the Obama administration, from 2009 to 2017.
What does this mean for global public health?
This means that the two organizations which benefit the most from USAID money, Marie Stopes International and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, will not agree to the rule, and will cut themselves off from the USAID program like they have opted to do in the past. This means that money that was previously available to fund clinics in developing countries, along with the medical staffs which served them, will likely experience huge cuts in operating hours, while many are at risk for closing altogether.
The last time the rule was enacted and shut down in a vicious cycle, it took clinics years to re-organize, re-build, re-staff and get up and running again. Judy Kahrl, a board member of reproductive health organization Pathfinder International, said that “it doesn’t take time to shut it down, but it takes time to set it up.”
But in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where the pains of this policy will be felt the most, the issues go way beyond providing reproductive health counseling. These health clinics are currently able to provide basic contraception like condoms, which are the first barrier to protect against HIV infection. In countries and villages where incidence rates account for nearly half of global infections, we can expect a potential increase in new HIV infections and an increase in HIV-related mortality due to a lack of treatment centers, which may be at risk for closure.
By the time I graduate college, I will have personally spent over a year of my life in my early career as a chemical researcher supporting the academic pursuit of a cure to HIV. I have learned that HIV/AIDS is not something we can afford to ignore, and we are not close to eradicating either.
Policies like the one re-implemented Jan. 23 are only going to make curing and reducing the incidence of HIV more difficult, costly, lengthy and tragic. Tragic, because every day we waste on petty beliefs in our privileged American brains thinking we should hold the power over another person’s body in a developing country, 5,753 women die from unsafe abortions and 3,014 people die from HIV/AIDS.
This is truly, and totally, tragic.
But wait — there’s more. The real kicker of the Mexico City Policy is found in data collected and analyzed by the World Health Organization and published in a paper by Eran Bendavid, Patrick Avila and Grant Miller in 2011.
WHO’s chilling research shows that re-implementation of the policy is statistically linked to an increase in the probability that women in areas receiving U.S. aid money will choose to have an induced abortion by 200-400 percent (95 percent confidence interval). So, a policy backed by loud-mouthed conservatives to stop abortions all over the world has actually been found to increase abortion rates, steadily, yet unpredictably. Yet, with all of this empirical data in place, our new President still brought it back — and is the only president to have done so in the light of the new data and reports published by scientists from our country.
These abortions also reflect an increased rate of pregnancies, which have been shown to pull young women out of school earlier than expected in countries where education is hard enough to come by already.
Now, young African women who already struggle to be able to go to school will see an increase in unwanted and unexpected pregnancy rates, and will face roughly equal rates of dropping out of schools.
So why did Trump re-sign the rule into action?
Many pro-life conservatives (most in the Republican Party) urged Trump along the campaign trail to take concrete actions to assure the American people that he was really pro-life. This was his action — hand me that paper, I’ll sign it, hey look, I support pro-life. But if you ask me, somebody who has bragged about sexual assault, doesn’t have the ability to carry a baby in his womb, and who has never been overtly or publicly religious, doesn’t really care about this rule or the millions of people who will be hurt by it.
He cares about looking good for the people donating money to his campaign and causes his constituency supports. There have been several qualitative, and a handful of quantitative studies since the policy was first implemented that showed exactly how harmful the policy was to developing countries, how harmful it was to the HIV epidemic, to maternal death rates, and to other factors too long to list. No person with a conscience could have re-enacted this law, truly understanding what it is, without regretting immediately what he had done. And yet, look where we are.
So to any of you who think that just because you’ve never had to have an abortion, never needed family planning assistance you couldn’t afford without governmental funding, or have ever had to live in a country where clean water and electricity are daily graces, you get to decide what’s right or wrong for those people who do: re-evaluate your thinking and your voting practices.
This rule is outright disgusting, harmful, ignorant and ridiculous, especially in light of quantitative data published during the Obama administration.
Foreign policy is not a game, and it is not something to use to your advantage while you run a powerful country. It is not acceptable to push meaningless, shallow political agendas on people who have no choice but to comply with them, or die.
Or worse: both.