On Friday evening, a time favored by officials trying to avoid attention, President Barack Obama issued a statement reversing one of the most damaging policies ever visited on developing nations by Republican administrations. This was the “global gag rule,” which forbade US government support for any organization that in any way fostered, provided or even advised women about abortion. It was a policy foisted on an unsuspecting world by the Reagan administration at, of all events, a United Nations conference on women and development held in Mexico City in 1984.
What became known as the “Mexico City policy” was always a political football. It was rescinded in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, then reimposed in 2001 by George W. Bush, who also proceeded to deal a second harsh blow to the world’s poorest families by cutting off American assistance to the United Nations Population Fund, the largest global provider of family planning assistance. The reason, or excuse–rejected by the administration’s own internal report–was that the Population Fund was linked to forced abortion practices in China. The fund has lost about $250 million in American aid since 2002.
Millions of women and their families were the direct victims of these shortsighted steps, taken in the name of people who called themselves “pro-family,” but appeared to be woefully ignorant of the harm they caused in homes around the world. The International Planned Parenthood Federation, based in London, estimates that in the last eight years alone as much as $100 million in US aid was lost to its affiliates in 100 countries because of their refusal to accept an abortion ban. The federation estimates this lost aid could have prevented 36 million unintended pregnancies and 15 million abortions, often acts of desperation. More than 80,000 women and more than 2.5 million children might not have died.
Not surprisingly, the rate of unsafe abortions is highest in the poorest countries, where at least 200 million women cannot get contraceptives. The World Health Organization, which supports safe abortion as a tool of last resort, estimates that of 45 million abortions globally every year, 19 million take place under unsafe conditions, causing at least 68,000 deaths. Forty percent of those most dangerous abortions involve teens and women between the ages of 15 and 24. A woman in the developing world–primarily in Africa and parts of Asia–is at least 100 times more likely to die of a botched abortion than a woman in the industrial North.
Which raises the question why President Obama–and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, once an outspoken champion of women’s rights in the developing world–made so little of this policy reversal. Is abortion still too skittish a topic to talk about in public? Even when a presidential order signals a promising new approach to development aid?
President Obama also pledged to work with Congress to restore contributions to the Population Fund, known as UNFPA. “By resuming funding to UNFPA, the US will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries,” his statement said.
Not lost on Thoraya Obaid, the courageous Saudi woman who is executive director of UNFPA, was President Obama’s focus on poverty reduction as a byproduct of family planning, giving millions of the world’s poorest women some of the same reproductive choices and life opportunities enjoyed in richer nations.
“President Obama’s decision could not have come at a more critical time,” Obaid said in a statement hours after the White House announcement. It was, she added, “an essential step towards creating a world where all women have the opportunity to participate as equal members of society.” The rate of death from pregnancy and childbirth–99 percent of which occur in developing countries–has fallen just one per cent between 1990 and 2005 around the world, the UNFPA statement noted. “Every minute, a woman dies giving life, totaling up to 10 million women during a generation,” it said.
UNFPA has argued tirelessly at the UN, where population growth is not a fashionable issue, that high fertility (mostly not a woman’s choice) lowers per capita income, reduces education levels and consumes resources necessary to sustain healthy, productive lives. It also creates a generation of poorly educated, unemployable young people shorn of hope and open to recruitment by militant organizations of all kinds, threatening the stability of countries trying to make still-shaky democracies work.
Secretary of State Clinton, who has said she will focus on democracy and development, now has her mandate.
Steven Sinding, a former director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, a Columbia University professor and advisor to the World Bank, was working on family planning in the US government in 1984 when the gag rule was first announced in Mexico City, taking American officials on the scene by surprise.
Sinding has been campaigning ever since against this destructive policy, which for the IPPF alone, he said in an e-mail, “necessitated clinic closures, staff layoffs and, ultimately, curtailment of family planning services to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of women in developing countries.
He described President Obama’s reversal of the order as something akin to “a glorious sunrise after a long and exceptionally dark night.”