While things are bad in the United States, they are much worse globally.
Nearly one-quarter of all adult women in developing countries suffer illness or
injury related to pregnancy and childbirth. One hundred twenty million couples
want to delay childbearing but do not have access to modern contraceptive
methods. Many more lack access to essential obstetric care, which leads to
515,000 maternal deaths each year. And not coincidentally, approximately 70,000
women die each year due to unsafe abortions and millions more are temporarily or
So how has the Bush administration shown compassion for these women? On his
second day in office, President George W. Bush reinstated the global gag rule.
It prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. funds for
family planning from providing abortion services, including referrals, even when
these activities are supported by their non-U.S. funds and are lawful under
their own legal system. While freedom of expression remains a constitutional
right in the United States, our foreign assistance is used as a vehicle to
impose an ideological agenda that undermines that right around the world.
Through the gag rule, the U.S. government is proclaiming that women outside the
United States should not benefit from a right that American women, at least
While proponents of the gag rule maintain that its imposition is necessary to
reduce the number of abortions, research shows that it accomplishes just the
opposite. The restrictions cause more unplanned pregnancies, more unsafe
abortions, and more deaths and injuries of vulnerable women and girls. In
addition, it makes no distinction between the varied and sometimes tragic
circumstances that lead women to seek an abortion. Whether women and girls are
rape victims, HIV positive or simply too young to have a child, the policies of
the United States give them only one choice: to continue an unwanted and
potentially deadly pregnancy or risk their lives by self-induced or otherwise
unsafe abortions. The underlying message of the gag rule is that women's lives
simply do not matter.
While the United States exports this archaic, unscientific and undemocratic
policy, the world is moving in a different direction. In 1994, 179 countries
agreed to address the public health impact of unsafe abortion at a key United
Nations event. In its 1996 post-apartheid constitution, South Africa guaranteed
a woman's right to abortion. In the past five years, both Ethiopia and Nepal
have greatly liberalized their abortion laws.
In the Muslim world, where I am based, the parameters of the abortion debate,
and the language and strategies used, differ substantially from the United
States. The fervor, absolutism and sometimes violent tactics that characterize
the U.S. anti-abortion movement are completely absent. Efforts are made to limit
the number of abortions by understanding the circumstances that lead women to
experience unplanned and unsafe pregnancies. While the sanctity of life is
critical to all Muslims, debates do not focus on fetal rights or when pregnancy
begins, but what is best for women, existing children and their families.
In Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Muslim leaders have issued religious
proclamations about the acceptability of abortion. Laws permitting abortion have
been expanded in several countries including Bahrain, Turkey and Tunisia. These
efforts are part of a global trend - ignored or opposed by the United States -
of abortion law reform in more than 15 countries during the past decade.
In the time that it has taken to read this article, 88 women will have had an
abortion, close to half of them under unsafe conditions. By contrast, thousands
of lives have been saved in the U.S. since abortion was legalized 33 years ago.
The struggle for reproductive justice continues, in Kansas as well as in Kenya.
As we recognize the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, let us pause and scrutinize the
real impact of our national and international policies. Unless we do, millions
of women around the world will continue to suffer and die as a result of our
misguided and morally bankrupt policies.
Leila Hessini is an American of Algerian origin. She works for Ipas, a
global reproductive rights organization. She is currently based in Rabat,
Right Way to Reduce Abortion, by Jessica Arons and Shira Saperstein
v. Wade for Women in Prison, by Rachel Roth
Perspective on Abortion, by Leila Hessini
a Comprehensive Movement, by Eveline Shen
in the Fight for Choice, by Crystal Plati
Court on Physician Aid-in-Dying, by Barbara Coombs Lee