The War on Women

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Late this March, 4,300 representatives from more than 600 organizations and 170 nations gathered in New York for the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year’s meeting—held in the wake of global outcry against gender inequity including the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements—focused on the rights and development of rural women and girls, and one of the key topics was sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, says that during the meeting participants “heard clearly from the women and girls themselves what they want: from the rights to own property, to the need for quality infrastructure, to the rights to make decisions about their own bodies and lives.”

At the close of the session, the commission issued a blueprint outlining next steps and recommendations to improve the status of rural women and girls around the world. One of these recommendations was the “provision of universal health coverage, and realizing the need for women and girls in rural areas to manage and exercise their sexual and reproductive health.”

Meetings like this are a step forward for global reproductive rights, but it’s hard to ignore that in the United States, Trump and his cadre of anti-choice politicians are working hard to ensure that women not just in this country, but around the globe, are denied access to basic reproductive health care.

This year and last, we have seen a flood of anti-choice legislation and policy introduced at the state and national levels in the United States. The number of US clinics that provide abortion services is shrinking, unconstitutional bans limit women’s access as they work their way through the court systems, and policy changes implemented by the Trump administration prioritize religious belief over women’s right to health care.

Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t stop there. The reality is that Trump has the power to harm women outside the United States as well. The United States is the largest global donor on health, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW). It also has political pull around the world.

That influence could be used to improve women’s access to reproductive healthcare, helping to ensure every girl and woman’s right to make decisions about her own body is protected. Instead, from the very beginning of his presidency, Trump has take steps to undercut the reproductive rights of women around the world financially and diplomatically.

The Mexico City Rule—or Global Gag Rule, as it is sometimes called, prevents foreign organizations who provide abortion services or counsel patients about abortion from receiving US funds. The rule has become a political football for newly elected presidents. It was established by Ronald Reagan in 1984. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rescinded the rule early in their presidencies. Trump, like George W. Bush before him, reinstated it.

But Trump has taken the policy a devastating step further than any president before him.

Prior to Trump’s expansions, the Global Gag Rule applied only to US family planning funds. Now, all organizations receiving US global health assistance funds must comply. The change increases the amount of funds affected by the policy from $565 million to $8.8 billion, according to the HRC.

A spokesperson from Marie Stopes International (MSI)—an organization whose mission is to “provide the contraception and safe abortion services that give women and girls a choice”—says the organization is already dealing with the effects of the expansion. For the moment, short-term funding has filled the gap with previously USAID-funded work that no longer meets the requirements for aid, but that funding will run out mid-2018.

Those missing dollars will have real consequences, says the MSI spokesperson. “Women and girls who lack access to a choice of family planning methods are less likely to complete their education, have a career, or be able to pursue their plans and dreams for the future. They are more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, and more likely to risk death and disability by undergoing an unsafe abortion.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 47,000 women die from complications of unsafe abortion each year—almost 13 percent of all maternal deaths. The International Planned Parenthood Foundation estimates that the loss in funding caused by Trump’s expansion of the Global Gag Rule will “lead to an additional 20,000 maternal deaths, 4.8 million unintended pregnancies and 1.7 million unsafe abortions.”

The impact of Trump’s expansion of the Global Gag Rule doesn’t end with shutting down millions of women’s access to contraception and abortion services. Because the rule now affects all US global health assistance, programs that focus on disease prevention, nutrition, and even sanitation will be affected if they are run by organizations that do not meet the strict criteria of the rule.

In an additional blow to global reproductive rights, the US State Department has just released its annual country reports on global human rights, with all mention of reproductive rights removed.

“It is unacceptable that the ‘Reproductive Rights’ section has disappeared from every single country report, indicating a clear disregard for women’s rights and protections worldwide,” says Nancy Northup, president and CEO for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Human rights are not spoils in a political contest. They are universal and indivisible.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights has demanded that the State Department issue revised reports with the sections on reproductive rights restored.

In a press release, UN Women cited an increase in attendees at the CSW annual session. A development it says signals “growing strength and unity of women’s voices around the world.” Trump’s continuing refusal to acknowledge the global consensus that reproductive rights are human rights is a failure of international and domestic leadership. And, as usual, it is women who will bear the consequences.


Alice Pettway is a poet and advocacy journalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, The Miami HeraldThe ProgressiveTeaching Tolerance, The Threepenny ReviewWomenArts Quarterly and numerous other print and online publications. Pettway’s first full-length collection of poetry, The Time of Hunger | O Tempo de Chuva, is available now from Salmon Poetry. Her second book, Moth, is forthcoming in 2019. Currently, Pettway lives and writes in Shanghai, China. For updates, visit alicepettway.com.