From the Women's March last weekend (where"reproductive rights" took centre stage) to Trump'sreinstatement of the Mexico City Policy (MCP) and a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to enshrine the Hyde Amendment into law under HR7, to theMarch for Life on Friday, the abortion issue dominated the new President's first week in office.
In a nutshell, the MCP and the Hyde Amendment seek to ensure that American taxpayers' money is not used to fund the abortion industry either in the U.S. or internationally.
The MCP prohibits U.S. foreign aid money from going to international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that perform or promote abortions, as a method of family planning.
HR7 is a bill that would make permanent the prohibition under the Hyde Amendment on the use of federal money in securing abortions in the United States. Renewed every year since its inception in 1976, this ban has effectively been in force for 40 years.
Direct U.S. funding for abortion has been prohibited since before the MCP was originally enacted, but without the MCP, NGOs were eligible to receive millions of taxpayer dollars for non-abortion related activities, which freed up other money to be used to perform or promote abortions. The MCP closes this loophole. Given that themajority of Americans oppose the use of taxpayers' money to fund abortions, democratically speaking, the policies seem justified.
Nevertheless, the policies have unsurprisingly sparked controversy around the world, including in Australia, where Sydney-based women marched in solidarity with women in Washington, D.C. and Deputy Labor LeaderTanya Plibersek called on the Turnbull government to lobby for the repeal of the MCP.
Australian journalists further condemned the MCP as harmful to women in developing countries, while using it as an opportunity to promote extreme abortion laws in Australia by trying to draw parallels with a supposed lack of access to abortion here. This despite the more than 80,000 abortions that take place every year and abortion being one of the most common surgical procedures performed in Australia, with around one in three Australian women having the procedure in their lifetime.
Let me be clear: I am no fan of Trump. In many regards, I share the sentiments of the women who marched in Washington, Australia and around the world to protest his election. Several goals of the March - such as ending violence against women and protecting the rights of the most marginalised women - also resonate strongly with me.
Like the pro-life feminists who protested both Trump and abortion at the Women's March and the March for Life, what I do not share is the harmful ideology which holds that access to abortion is indispensable to women's health, autonomy and happiness, and that the abortion industry is women's saviour. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Reverberating throughout the mainstream media are claims that poor women in developing countries (particularly sub-Saharan Africa) will "pay the price" for funding cuts to organisations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Marie Stopes International (MSI) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as a result of the MCP. There will allegedly be thousands more of these women dying from unsafe abortions, a reduction in other health care services (such as family planning, HIV programs, and maternal and child health programs) and even an increase in the abortion rates of those countries.
These claims require closer examination.
"More women will die from unsafe abortions"
With regards to the first claim, it is important to note that the MCP explicitly does not prevent organisations from performing or promoting abortions with the purpose of saving the mother's life (or in cases of rape or incest), or from providing any treatment of injuries or illness caused by legal or illegal abortions.
Those claiming that women will die as a result of the MCP also either cite no evidence or rely solely on the "estimates" of MSI. MSI is an organisation that deserves the utmost scrutiny when it comes to representations about abortion and women's safety, having recently been at the centre of multiple scandals in Britain and Africa, for putting the safety of women and girls at risk in its abortion clinics as well as performing illegal abortions.
But we don't have to look overseas for evidence of MSI's scant regard for women's safety. In 2010 MSI partnered with Dr Mark Schulberg at his abortion clinic in Croydon just a few months after news broke that 44 women had been infected with hepatitis C at the clinic under Dr Schulberg's management. Dr Schulberg had also been found guilty of professional misconduct the previous year for failing to gain legal consent to perform a late term abortion on an intellectually disabled woman. After partnering with MSI, the clinic continued to attract controversy after one woman died from a late term abortion performed by Dr Schulberg and another was rushed to hospital in critical condition. In 2013 Dr Schulberg was struck off the medical register for inappropriately prescribing patients with addictive drugs for nearly ten years.
Several studies have also shown that countries where abortion is restricted - such as Ireland and Chile - have some of the lowest maternal mortality rates. Such studies are contrary to the claim that limitations on abortion access increase maternal mortality.
Finally, concerns that more women will die due to lack of access to safe abortions in developing countries appear to overlook the reality that millions of unborn baby girls already die each year from "safe" abortion. The numbers of females aborted is grossly disproportionate to the number of boys aborted as a result of the sex selective practices in some of those countries (particularly China and India).
"There will be a reduction in other health care services"
As for the second claim, the MCP does not reduce U.S. foreign aid, nor does it prevent U.S. funds from being used for any other health care services, including family planning services, HIV programs or child and maternal health programs. What it does is restrict funds from going to international organisations that provide such services and programs if they also perform and promote abortions. As already noted, without such a policy, it is impossible to maintain a separation between taxpayers' funds and abortion.
It is here that organisations must weigh up whether abortion, as a method of family planning, is, as MSI and others believe, such a "vital component of women's reproductive healthcare" that they could not properly care for women without it (abortion as a "method of family planning" does not include abortions to save the mother's life or in cases of rape or incest). If they determine that it is, and cannot therefore comply with the terms of the MCP, only then must they forgo what has now been expanded to include all global health related assistance from the United States. Funds will be redirected to organisations providing health care services that can agree to the MCP's terms.
But perhaps even more importantly, we need to challenge the belief that abortion is a vital component of women's reproductive health care.
How vital is a procedure that puts women at risk of physical and psychological harm? That for many women isunwanted or coerced? That fails to address the underlying reasons women feel they have no other choice but to seek an abortion in the first place (such as intimate partner violence, poverty, or other pressures/lack of support)? That facilitates the objectification of women and the irresponsibility and infidelity of men? That interrupts a woman's healthily functioning reproductive system so that she can get along in a man's world? How vital is a procedure that even many of its proponents agree should be rare and which is an incredibly difficult decision for women?
"There will be more abortions"
Relying on a 2011 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which found that abortion rates in sub-Saharan African countries increased while the MCP was in force under Bush, MSI has also claimed that "by blocking funding to the world's largest NGO providers of modern contraception, it will reduce women's ability to prevent unplanned pregnancy," resulting in more abortions.
MSI's observations and the WHO study have both been cited extensively and relied on uncritically by opponents of the MCP. As one author notes, however, the study has a number of methodological shortcomings. Most significantly, according to the study itself contraception use in sub-Saharan Africa actually increased (it nearly doubled) after the MCP took effect in 2001. This makes it difficult to argue that a lack of contraception led to increased abortion numbers.
There are also issues with the WHO's evidence base. The study is missing data and so the apparent increase in the incidence of abortion over time might simply be due to countries reporting data more completely and correctly in recent years. Large fluctuations in the study's data also calls into question its quality and reliability.
It is far from conclusive that the MCP has, or will, lead to an increase in abortions or a decrease in contraception. It is, however, ironic that the very organisations that aggressively push abortion on developing countries - where abortion is often illegal or conflicts with cultural attitudes - are concerned about an increase in abortion numbers. The UNFPA's and IPPF's zealous population control in developing nations - including their alleged support of the One Child Policy in China while turning a blind eye to coerced abortions there - is but one example of this.
Opportunity to provide real solutions for women
Ultimately, the MCP restricts funding to an industry that has deep roots in the population control movement, a reprehensible track record on women's rights and welfare and both performs and promotes a procedure that is inherently harmful to women.
Funding restrictions under the MCP provide an opportunity for organisations to consider whether abortion, as a method of family planning, really is an essential part of women's health care, and whether there might in fact be other more compassionate, supportive and truly liberating solutions that they can offer to women.
Instead of pledging to raise $600 million for the international abortion industry to replace funds lost under the MCP, governments such as those of the Netherlands and Canada might better consider following the United States' lead in dedicating their energy and resources to providing real aid to women.
Originally published on ABC, 2 February 2017.
Photo credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images.