Katha Pollitt on Obama and global gag rule, Megan Buskey on AIDS in Iran, Corbin Hiar on elections in Ghana, Sonia Shah on scientists for human rights



On January 23, one day after the thirty-sixth anniversary of

Roe v. Wade

, President

Barack Obama

overturned the Mexico City policy, aka the global gag rule, which barred US funds for overseas health organizations that so much as mentioned abortion in their work. Score one for women’s rights, women’s health, free speech and international family planning. Contrary to

David Brooks

, who, while admitting total ignorance, opined on

The NewsHour

With Jim Lehrer

that the gag rule had no practical effect, the International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that it lost $100 million in US funding. The

Marie Stopes International

family planning organization closed down four programs in Kenya, Ethiopia and Nepal. Meanwhile, funding that had gone to family planning was shifted to evangelical groups promoting abstinence. If Obama restores US support for the UN Population Fund–vetoed for eight long years by

George W. Bush

on bogus charges that it funded forced abortions in China–the dismal picture for women’s reproductive health in the developing world will surely brighten.

Still, it’s insulting that healthcare so essential to women’s well-being is dependent on the good will of the president, like some kind of medieval boon. Can you imagine, say, funding for heart disease being swapped in and out of the budget depending on whether a Republican or a Democrat occupies the White House? To please right-wing Christians, women in far-off lands suffered fistulas and other horrible pregnancy-related conditions, wore themselves out physically and emotionally in childbearing and died in great numbers from pregnancy, labor and illegal abortions; children died in infancy, were impoverished and orphaned. For now, that’s over. But in four years? Eight years?   KATHA POLLITT


On January 21 two HIV/AIDS physicians,

Kamiar and Arash Alaei

, were sentenced by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court to three and six years in prison, respectively, for “communicating with an enemy government.” As with the cases of

Haleh Esfandiari


Kian Tajbakhsh

, respected Iranian-American scholars arrested for similar “offenses” but eventually released in 2007, the Alaeis’ case has been met with outcry from organizations like

Physicians for Human Rights

, which called the charges against them “illegitimate and politically motivated.”

The Alaeis, who are brothers, are leaders in the field of HIV/AIDS treatment. In 2003 the World Health Organization singled out for praise the national network of AIDS clinics they established in Iran, and their work has received funding from major international donors as well as the Iranian government. In 2006 Kamiar moved to the United States to pursue graduate study in public health, and Arash visited often to lecture. Their efforts seem to have made them targets of the hardline Iranian government, which has begun to use US contacts as a pretext for prosecuting civil society actors. The brothers were arrested in Tehran in June and have been held largely incommunicado since then.

The Alaeis’ lawyer plans to appeal the verdicts. More than 3,100 medical professionals have signed a petition at

calling for their release.   MEGAN BUSKEY


The month of January featured not one but two notable inaugurations. As

Barack Obama

headed toward the White House, the arrival of

John Atta Mills

in Ghana’s presidential palace also signaled a hopeful advance for democracy. In a free and fair runoff election monitored by EU observers, Atta Mills of the social democratic

National Democratic Congress

(NDC) defeated

Nana Akufo-Addo

of the free market-oriented incumbent

New Patriotic Party

(NPP) by a margin of less than 0.5 percent. Atta Mills campaigned to bridge the country’s development gap and stop the growth of corruption, which ballooned under the NPP. His peaceful accession to power in Accra stands in stark contrast to the widespread violence that marred the outcomes of similar contests in Nigeria and Kenya in 2007, and recently in

Robert Mugabe

‘s Zimbabwe. Akufo-Addo and the outgoing president,

John Kufuor

, who stepped down after serving the constitutional maximum of two terms, attended the January 7 inauguration. UN Secretary-General

Ban Ki-moon

praised the “democratic achievement” of Ghana and its leaders for “setting an admirable example.”   CORBIN HIAR


Why has everyone heard of human rights lawyers and pro bono legal advocates but not human rights mathematicians and pro bono biophysicists? For decades, the professional culture in the sciences has frowned on engagement in social issues, holding that disinterested, unbiased scientific methods require disinterested and unbiased minds. But the groundbreaking scientists who exposed the dangers of climate change and the extent of civilian mortality in Iraq, among other issues, have proved that good science can be conducted in the service of human rights. And now, just in time for the new administration to “restore science to its rightful place,” the

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

–the world’s largest and one of the most prestigious scientific associations–has sent a powerful signal to the scientific masses that social engagement is not just legit but necessary.

In mid-January representatives from some fifty mainstream scientific associations, from the

American Medical Association

and the

Biophysical Society

to the

Mathematical Association of America

and the

American Meteorological Society

, met at AAAS’s Washington headquarters to brainstorm ways to encourage their members to speak out against human rights violations and support established rights-oriented organizations. The result: the AAAS’s

Science and Human Rights Coalition

, which will promote this work and channel scientist-volunteers to these organizations. “Human rights activists and scientists are both in pursuit of the truth; it’s a natural partnership,” enthused

EarthRights International


Matthew Smith

, one of a handful of advocates rubbing shoulders with the AAAS scientists, Nobel laureates among them. Sure, agreed coalition co-founder

Mona Younis

, although she also had a more competitive goal in mind. “We’re going to beat all those pro bono lawyers,” she said.   SONIA SHAH

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