By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A record number of women in U.S. Congress and pro-choice presidential contenders could strike back at a gag rule imposed by President Donald Trump, which has slashed access to abortion globally, a leading expert said.
After November's elections, nearly a quarter of the House of Representatives - 102 members - are women, who could push to rein in the ban on U.S.-funded groups discussing abortion, said Latanya Mapp Frett, head of Planned Parenthood Global.
"Even in the few days they've been there, having these new members shed light on some of these injustices that the administration is pulling is hugely important," Frett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview late on Tuesday.
The gag rule has forced the closure of health clinics, outreach programmes and refugee services by charities, fearful that non-compliance could lead to the loss of all their U.S. healthcare aid, which totals some $8 billion a year.
Frett spoke ahead of the release of a report by Planned Parenthood Global on the global gag rule, which blocks charities funded by U.S. aid and working abroad from providing legal abortions or referrals, or advocating for abortion law reform.
While experts say exact figures are difficult to ascertain, one major family planning group, Marie Stopes International estimates the gag rule will deny some 1.7 million women globally access to its services, the report said.
"Its damage is just beginning and will deepen in years to come," said the report by the international arm of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a major national women's healthcare and abortion provider.
Nearly all of the 102 female members of the new House, sworn in this month, belong to the Democratic Party, which is facing off with Trump's Republican Party after taking control of the House in the midterms - widely seen as a referendum on Trump.
Trump signed an executive order approving the gag rule on his fourth day in office in January 2017 - a policy long used by U.S. presidents to signal their stance on abortion rights, a touchstone issue in U.S. politics.
Frett said having more women in the top ranks of U.S. politics could build support for efforts to rein in the rule,
Women in Congress could back proposed laws such as making it illegal for the U.S. government to use foreign aid to restrict activities like abortion that are legal in another country, said Frett, who is based in Kenya.
"There are ways to tackle executive orders," she said.
Several of the first Democrats seeking to challenge Trump, the likely Republican candidate for president in 2020, are women - Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Tulsi Gabbard.
All of them support women's right to abortion, which is legal in the United States but also a persistent point of controversy. It is opposed by many religious groups and political conservatives.
"I am excited. I am hopeful that we can have more women speaking to these issues and dismissing some of this nonsense that we hear from politicians around women's health," Frett said.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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