Trust a grandmother: Trump's chance to learn from gag rule's past mistakes

by Judy Kahrl | Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights
Sunday, 22 January 2017 22:45 GMT

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after being sworn in followed by first lady Melania Trump on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC., U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool

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With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump may undo vital reproductive health progress by imposing a rule that has dire implications for millions of women around the world

Sixty-seven years ago, my father brought me to a remote village in Uttar Pradesh – the most over-populated state in an already overpopulated India – to celebrate a profound win in reproductive health for local women.

After many fits and starts, the village chief had been convinced of the importance of family planning and agreed to take it upon himself to educate his community.

My father, Clarence Gamble, was one of countless many who lived the mission to share information about family planning and empower women and families – a mission which has changed millions of lives for generations. It's saved lives. It’s brought communities out of poverty. It’s given women not just a choice, but choices, plural, about when and how many children to have; about continuing their education; about their economic future.

But generations of progress are at grave risk today.

With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump may undo vital reproductive health progress by imposing the global "gag rule" – a punitive, short-sighted measure which has dire implications for millions of women around the world.

The global gag rule denies foreign organizations which receive U.S. family planning assistance the right to use their own funding to provide services, referrals, or even information related to legal abortion.This means even in countries where abortion is permitted by law, local health practitioners who receive U.S. funds are prohibited from mentioning abortion as a medical option to their patients – even if her life depends on it.

Sadly, if you’re a grandmother like me, you recognize this territory. The global gag rule was originally imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 and has been rescinded by Democrats and reinstated by Republicans in the White House ever since. It is not about what foreign organizations do with U.S. foreign aid dollars; it is a condition placed on how they spend their own private funds in order to be eligible for U.S. funding.

If President Trump brings back the gag rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy), clinics overseas, many in remote and impoverished areas, may have to choose between receiving U.S. aid or providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care.

As we know from experience here in the United States, restricting access to abortion means many women will find other ways – whether it’s untrained providers or dangerous do-it-yourself methods. Reinstating this policy will put local health care providers out of business and cut services to those who need it most.

The President and his team like numbers – so let’s go there.

We know that 6.9 million women are already treated for complications from unsafe abortions each year in developing countries, and 22,000 of them die.

We know from international data that restrictions and bans like the gag rule do little to actually reduce the number of abortions, as its supporters aim to do. In fact, a well-respected study by Stanford University found that, under President George W. Bush, the gag rule policy led to increased abortions in sub-Saharan Africa because women had less access to contraception and were therefore forced to seek abortions – often unsafe ones – to prevent unwanted births.

We know from history and our lives that most women will do what it takes to ensure the stability of their families and end an unwanted pregnancy, even if it risks their lives. It's something grandmothers like me saw growing up – when a college classmate would disappear for three days, or worse, never come back from a sudden doctor’s appointment. I recall vividly the morning 1972 when a student came to see my husband, a college professor, to tell him his girlfriend had bled to death in their bed from an abortion.

We’ve made a lot of progress since those days. We cannot turn back the clock on women around the world.

Which conversation do we want to see repeated? The conversation that helped change lives in that remote Indian village every year since 1955? Or the countless ones to come about sorrow and loss due to ignorance and bad public policy?

Woodrow Wilson once said, "A conservative is someone who makes no changes and, when in doubt, consults his grandmother."

Let us hope if President Trump won’t listen to reason or data, he will listen to us grandmothers.

Judy Kahrl is a member of the Board of Directors of Pathfinder International, the nonprofit founded by her father six decades ago to support global reproductive health, and founder of Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights (GRR). She lives in Maine.

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