A Policy of Silence: The Global Gag Rule and its Impact on the Developing World

On January 26, not even a week after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order reinstituting the controversial Mexico City policy. This so-called ‘Global Gag Rule’ is a piece of legislation that prevents federal funding from the United States being used to advocate for the legalisation of abortion, provide abortion referrals or counselling, or expand pre-existing abortion services. Enacted in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan, the policy has since been upheld by Republican administrations and rescinded by Democratic ones. A requirement of the policy is that non-governmental organisations that use US federal funding declare they “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations,” with the only exceptions to the Mexico City policy being abortions in the case of incest, rape, or life-threatening conditions. Trump’s reinstating of the policy has which reignited the debate on the relationship between federal money and abortion, both at home and abroad.

Donald Trump signing executive orders in January

In theory, the Mexico City policy is a means for the federal government to prevent American taxes being spent on abortion services; in a country where 75% of citizens declare themselves to be Christians, this is an unsurprising approach, and the status of the Mexico City policy undoubtedly remains influenced by the Christian right. Yet in reinstituting the Mexico City policy, the United States once again puts itself at odds with the international community committed to ensuring that the rights of women are protected, and who recognise that there are “robust empirical patterns suggesting that the Mexico City Policy is associated with increases in abortion rates.” The United Nations has consistently affirmed the right of women to an abortion as a human right, stating that “criminalisation of abortion and failure to provide adequate access to services for termination of an unwanted pregnancy are forms of discrimination based on sex.” As a major world leader and self-proclaimed human rights champion, the United States should be expected to uphold the rights of all global citizens, whether inside the American borders or not; in reinstituting the Mexico City policy, the American government fails to do this. It is a case of denying human rights by proxy; non-government organisations that rely on US aid to support vulnerable populations – particularly smaller organisations – will expect to either cut services that support, condone, promote, or provide abortions, or risk losing funding entirely.

Furthermore, the issue with removing funding for organisations that support a woman’s right to seek an abortion is that the data clearly demonstrates that criminalising abortion does not correlate with a reduction in the number of abortions performed, safe or otherwise. Data produced by the Guttmacher Institute shows that in Europe, where abortion is for the most part safe and fairly readily available, the number of abortions totalled 4.4 million between 2010 and 2014, making up 30 out of every 1,000 pregnant women. North America’s numbers were significantly lower: the US and Canada accounted for 1.2 million abortions in the same time frame, and made up 17 out of every 1,000 pregnant women. In contrast, the regions of the world with the most stringent abortion laws – Africa and South America – saw 34/1,000 and 47/1,000 women seek abortions respectively. The greatest need for abortion, therefore, correlates with the strictest abortion laws. Whilst concerns for the safety of women’s rights in the United States are valid, the true cost of the Trump administration’s policies toward abortion will therefore be felt most in underdeveloped countries, where 98% of unsafe abortions occur. Reducing access to safe abortion procedures will likely produce a spike in unsafe abortion rates and related deaths. The UN defines unsafe abortions as “a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both.” According to the World Health Organisation, unsafe abortions account for 13% of maternal deaths, making it one of the highest factors in global maternal mortality. Furthermore, 5 million women who undergo unsafe abortions each year suffer long-term health consequences, 40% of whom never receive treatment for their conditions. It is the human rights of these women, the majority of whom live in the developing world, that are at risk with Trump’s executive order.

A map showing country-level maternal mortality rates, by the WomenStats Project

The war over the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy remains as contentious in the United States now as it was in 1973 at the time of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling. Democrats and Republicans, pro-choice activists and pro-life activists, debate the validity of the ruling and what it means for American domestic and foreign policy, and the new administration’s approach to abortion policy only compounds the issue for American lawmakers, and in the wider international community. What the data clearly demonstrates is that to reduce the number of abortions globally, removing funding to non-governmental organisations is not the answer. By preventing funding safe abortion procedures, counsel, or support, the Trump administration only heightens the risk of termination of pregnancy resulting in complications that prove fatal or life altering to the women involved. It therefore remains a human rights issue that should be of immense importance to the global human rights community.

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