Here’s how the United States government marked the 2019 monthlong celebration of the world’s women in March:
Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got off to an early start on March 13 by releasing the State Department’s annual global human-rights report, scrubbed of all references to reproductive health and rights.
Hewing to the obsession of anti-abortion activists who are keeping very busy in Washington these days, the administration ignored legislation introduced in Congress on March 7, asking that the latest report include the fundamental sexual health and rights of women and girls. Congress has mandated the annual reports since 1961.
“By omitting reproductive rights from the Human Rights Reports for the second year in a row, the Trump administration signals that it does not believe women’s rights are worth defending,” said Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, after the release of the report.
“US foreign policy should advance the rights of women and girls,” Kowalski said in a statement, reflecting the views of advocates for women around the world. “Instead, this administration has taken every opportunity to undermine sexual and reproductive rights, whether by restricting access to critical services at home or failing to hold governments accountable for human rights abuses abroad.”
The Pompeo State Department had just dispatched a team dominated by ultraconservative ideologues to United Nations headquarters for the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which ran from March 11-22. PassBlue followed closely the spectacle of Americans joining in the haggling over the use of words like gender, family and sexual health with such other countries like Saudi Arabia.
Although US presidents had, at least symbolically, supported the designation of March as Women’s History Month since 1995, the year of the groundbreaking international conference on women’s rights in Beijing, that doesn’t mean much to Trump and his team. As this year’s observation of a special year for women was nearing its close, the Trump-Pompeo assault on the reproductive health and rights of women and girls reached a crescendo.
On March 26, the pious Pompeo — a self-described Evangelical Christian with a Bible near his office desk in apparent contravention of the long-held American belief in the separation of church and state — held a news conference at the State Department to announce two measures tightening anti-abortion policies “to ensure that US taxpayer dollars are not used to subsidize or promote abortions.” Abortion has now become the guiding principle in US global health assistance as it affects women.
Pompeo said the administration was introducing “further refinements” to an aggressive attempt to curb all women’s reproductive choices globally if their governments and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, hope to receive American aid.
“As before, we will continue to refuse to provide assistance to foreign NGOs who perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning,” he said.
For many NGOs, that restriction has cut into other lifesaving services like cancer screening and maternity care offered to women in health centers. From the UN Population Fund’s work down to grass-roots levels, abortions have not been advocated as a family planning tool, though they may occasionally be performed in health emergencies.
Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for example, condoned the prescription of emergency contraceptives — which are not abortive drugs — for refugees and others in distress who have been sexually attacked. But UN policies, far more liberal and humane than current American regulations, have not stopped anti-abortion lobbyists from maintaining a ban on all US funds for the UN Population Fund by executive order from the White House, out of the reach of Congressional opponents.
At his news conference, Pompeo explained what was new in enforcing a policy that has become known universally as the Global Gag Rule, first announced at an international conference in Mexico City by the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Republican presidents since then — vowing that no US taxpayer dollars will go to foreign NGOs involved in any aspect of abortion, including consultations for or against — have used this rule as a political tool with conservative voters.
“President Trump boldly expanded the Mexico City Policy in 2017,” Pompeo said. “It now protects every human life impacted by the nearly $9 billion of foreign aid we spend on global health programs each year, and in turn protects more unborn babies around the world than ever before. This is decent; this is right. And I’m proud to serve in an administration that protects the least amongst us.”
Now, Pompeo continued, in closing any loopholes, that he was “making clear we will refuse to provide assistance to foreign NGOs that give financial support to other foreign groups in the global abortion industry.” He called it “backdoor funding” or “end runs” around US policy.
In a second “refinement,” Pompeo announced on March 26 the US will reduce its contributions to the Organization of American States by a reported $210,000 because of “recent evidence of abortion-related advocacy” by unspecified “organs” in the OAS. “The institutions of the OAS should be focused on addressing crises in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and not on advancing the pro-abortion cause.”
PAI, an independent Washington research and advocacy organization, identified the targets of Pompeo’s decree against the OAS earlier this year as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission of Women.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, PAI noted, more than 97 percent of women and girls live under strict anti-abortion laws, in addition to high rates of domestic violence. The two OAS rights groups campaign on behalf of women who suffer under unequal and discriminatory laws, and they advocate for the decriminalization of abortion.
In its Washington Memo for March 26, titled “Absolutely Deplorable,” PAI said: “Today’s actions make clear that the Trump-Pence administration will stop at nothing in its quest to blacklist organizations who provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights information and services to starve them of funding — from any source. Even if that means extending the Global Gag Rule to funding from other bilateral donors and private foundations across all development sectors.”
The memo called it an “overreach” and “a purely political stunt.”
“This backdoor attempt to buy-up or shut down foreign NGOs who are doing good work in countless countries around the world on their behalf should not go uncontested,” PAI said.
The US action against the OAS is thought by women’s rights advocates to be a direct response to a letter that nine conservative US senators sent to Pompeo in December, accusing the two hemispheric rights organizations of using American taxpayer funds “to lobby for abortion in Latin America in direct contravention of US law.”
The 1981 provision that they refer to is the Siljander amendment, named for a former Congressman from Michigan, Mark Siljander.
The senators accused the two rights groups affiliated with the OAS of “brazen attempts” to use the organization . . . “to lobby and coerce pro-life nations into legalizing abortion.” Among the most prominent of the senators signing the letter was Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas. Only one woman signed it, Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa.
Pompeo, under sharp questioning from reporters at his news conference on March 26, rejected concerns about what the financial cuts would mean to the lives of people around the world. He dismissed questions about what related health projects would suffer, saying at one point that HIV programs had nothing to do with abortion. (Attempts to get a response from the OAS and its two rights entities about the US cuts were unsuccessful.)
In a final shot, a reporter asked, “But are you forcing these NGOs to make a choice between providing this women’s health service and receiving US funds?”
“No,” Pompeo replied. “They simply are prohibited from doing these things that run counter to the United States policy, which is not to use US taxpayer dollars to underwrite abortion. That’s all.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.