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Inter Press Service

Women in Massive Protest Demand Reproductive Rights


Women from Albania to Zambia joined hundreds of thousands of men and women from the United States on Sunday to charge that the Bush administration’s assault on women’s reproductive health rights is costing lives worldwide.

U.S. policies are, in particular, raising maternal mortality rates, due to botched abortions and shortfalls in funding for family-planning programmes, for which Washington was once by far the world’s most important donor, said the 200 activists from 57 countries who joined in the March for Women’s Lives.

“USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) has reduced aid in our region,” said Teresa Lanza, director of Catholics for the Right to Decide, in Bolivia. “Every year, maternal mortality is going up and up and up (in Bolivia). I really hope this finishes soon,” she added in a statement.

Her remarks before Sunday’s March, in which some 750,000 people were estimated to have taken part, were echoed by other representatives of agencies from developing countries, who said they came to Washington to add their voices to those protesting the administration’s anti-abortion agenda.

“Unfortunately, what American (women) and women and men living in poor countries seem to have in common is a systematic and organised assault on our reproductive rights,” said India-born Anu Kumar, executive vice president of Ipas, a North Carolina based agency that has worked for 30 years in developing countries to make safe abortions available to women.

“Instead of reaching out to help the world’s women,” she said in a statement, “the (Bush administration) has chosen to slap their hands.”

Ipas was one of two U.S.-based groups that refused to renounce their pro-choice activities overseas after President George W Bush reinstated the so-called “Global Gag Rule” immediately after taking office in 2001.

The rule bans non-governmental agencies abroad that receive U.S. foreign aid from being involved in any abortion-related activities — including lobbying local governments to ease anti-abortion legislation — even if they use their own money. By refusing to tell their overseas partners to stop abortion-related activities, Ipas forfeited some two million dollars in funding, according to Kumar.

The impact of the Gag Rule worldwide has been devastating for women, according to the administration’s critics. Agencies working in 29 countries have lost funding, not just for abortion counselling, but also for many other health services, from immunizations to AIDS testing and prenatal care, according to Ipas.

In 16 of those countries, USAID has ceased providing contraceptives, making it virtually certain that more women there will suffer unwanted pregnancies.

According to the United Nations, some 70,000 women worldwide die from unsafe or botched abortions each year, while another 500,000 die from for preventable pregnancy or birth-related problems, usually due to a shortfall in funding for family-planning programmes.

While annual U.S. aid for family planning has remained constant during Bush’s tenure, according to Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, about one-half of the total, 200 million dollars, is being spent on programmes to promote abstinence — a focus that most public-health experts agree has generally proven ineffective.

Moreover, the administration has suspended 34 million dollars approved by Congress for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) — the world’s most important provider of family-planning aid and advice — each of the past three years.

The White House claims that, by providing some unrelated technical assistance to China’s Health Ministry, which, in turn, has provided help to some districts that still use coercive techniques to promote abortions or sterilisations, the agency was indirectly violating a U.S. law that forbids any aid for coercive birth-control programmes.

Taken aback by the suspension of aid to UNFPA, members of the European Union (EU) pledged to increase their own funding to help bridge what they called the “decency gap.”

“Reproductive health is seen as a very important matter in Europe,” said Elfriede Harth, the European representative for Catholics for a Free Choice (CFC), who stressed that the U.S. aid was still sorely missed.

“If Europeans could vote (in November’s U.S. presidential election), they would certainly vote George Bush out of office,” said Harth, who came from France to take part in Sunday’s March. “Women around the world will be very, very grateful,” she added in a news release.

Application of the Gag Rule, according to Kumar, is hitting the world’s poorest countries — most of them in Africa — the hardest. “As a result of this policy, clinics are being forced to shut down, staff is being laid off, and contraceptives, including condoms to prevent HIV infection, are hard to find in places of high need like Zambia and Kenya,” she said.

In the latter, two leading family-planning agencies were forced to close five clinics and cut up to one-third of their staff. One of the clinics had served a crowded slum area of Nairobi since 1984, providing sexually transmissible infection (STI) screening and treatment, family planning, pre and post-natal obstetric services and infant care.

The Bush administration has also found itself in the ironic position of allying itself in international forums with the most conservative and fundamentalist Islamist governments in the world on issues of abortion and reproductive health rights, leading critics to charge that it is itself propounding fundamentalist views in conflict with basic U.S. constitutional notions of the right to privacy and the separation of church and state.

Noting the Vatican’s alliance with fundamentalist Muslims, and now with the Bush administration, on the same issues, CFC President Frances Kissling said, “It is sometimes hard for Catholics, who are overwhelmingly pro-choice on all reproductive health issues, to call their own religious leaders fundamentalists.

“But the fact is that every form of fundamentalism has as one of its central tenets the control of women’s lives, especially over reproduction,” she added in a statement. “No other religions has blanket prohibitions against contraception for married couples and against abortion for all reasons, including when a woman’s life is in danger.”

Given the ongoing scandal here over the sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests, she noted, “The Catholic Church is in no position to preach.”

This article courtesy of Inter Press Service.

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