Bound and Gagged

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

There’s a swirl of executive orders being signed by President Trump this week but there’s one that really struck me. The President reinstated a Reagan-era policy called the “Mexico City Policy aka the “Global Gag Rule,” which prohibits the U.S. from funding organizations that offer abortion services or information in countries around the world.

I have strong feelings about this. I’m pro-life. I wouldn’t have an abortion. I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do.

But that’s easy for me to say. I’ve never needed an abortion. I’ve never been pregnant. My husband and I are child-free by choice, and I’ve always had access to any birth control method that I wanted. I’ve never faced the grueling decision between bringing a child into the world or not. I’ve never had to ask myself if I’m financially, emotionally, or physically capable of caring for a child, and then had to admit that I’m not. That must be unbearable.

Women face these tough decisions every day, and in many places in the world, the decision is not even theirs to make. In some developing countries, the social and cultural pressure on women to bear as many children as possible – from an early age – is extreme. Women are rarely positioned to resist this pressure. Access to birth control services and information is severely restricted, and often controlled by men. In rural areas, distances to health clinics can be far, transport non-existent, and supplies unreliable or cost-prohibitive.

Birth rates reflect this. World Bank data from 2014 show that women in the U.S. give birth an average of 1.9 times in their lives. In Afghanistan, it’s 4.8 times; in Timor-Leste, 6.4; and in Niger, women give birth 7.6 times before their childbearing years are over. These are countries in which many people live on $2/day or less, and more children means more stretching of impossibly thin resources for food, education, and healthcare. These are places where families often dance right on the edge of survival.

The consequences for women – especially young women – can be enormous. According to WHO data from 2014, 11% of births around the world are to girls who are 15-19 years old. These adolescent girls are more likely to have complicated births or stillbirths, and they are much less likely to finish their education or earn any income of their own. That’s not to mention the sheer physical toll of a string of uninterrupted births. In Ethiopia and many other places, prolapsed uterus is a common problem for women. The floor of the uterus literally gives way under the stress of a lifetime of bearing children and performing hard physical labor.

This week’s executive order makes life even more arduous for these women, denying them of the last-resort family planning option that is safe abortion. It’s noteworthy that the Gag Rule doesn’t prohibit U.S. taxpayer money from funding abortions overseas; that has consistently been our policy for decades. The rule makes it impossible for American aid to fund any organization that offers abortion or related services (read: referrals, counseling, or educational materials) with any source of funding. That could endanger many organizations that provide a diverse range of health and other resources.

This isn’t the first time that the Gag Rule has been enacted. It was first introduced by President Reagan in 1984, and has been batted around since then – being activated by Republican presidents, and deactivated by Democratic ones. With this week’s executive order, President Trump has once again exported the American abortion battle, and it is women in poor countries who will pay the price. Based on data from previous Gag Rule enforcement periods, these women won’t get fewer abortions, just more dangerous ones.

Meanwhile, the new administration’s response has been sanguine. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer underscored, “[W]e’re standing up not just for life of the unborn, but for also taxpayer funds that are being spent overseas to perform an action that is contrary to the values of this president.”

That’s easy for him to say about abortion. He’s never needed one.