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Bold Moves Needed for Reproductive Health and Rights

‘She Decides’ Summit Spurs Governments, Donors to Combat Effects of Global Gag Rule

“Be bold,” Simon Cooke, head of Marie Stopes International (MSI), one of the largest providers of contraception and safe abortion services globally, challenged governments around the world at the She Decides conference in Brussels on March 2, 2017. “Be bold: support women who require safe abortion.”

Activists take part in a rally to support Polish women protesting against a ban of abortion, in front of the Polish embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, October 3, 2016. © 2017 Reuters

The current context indeed requires bold moves: the vastly expanded Global Gag Rule, or Mexico City Policy, announced by Donald Trump and supported by the Republican party, restricts organizations accepting US government funds from using even non-US money to provide abortions or information about abortions, refer to safe abortion services, or advocate for liberalization of abortion laws. In its newest form, the gag rule applies to all health funding, not only reproductive health care. Organizations worldwide stand to lose up to $9.5 billion in funding for health and family planning services. Dutch Foreign Minister Lilianne Ploumen spearheaded the She Decides initiative as an effort to help fill this massive funding gap.

At Thursday’s conference, a groundswell of support emerged to meet the challenge. Government representatives, civil society, and foundations rocked the room with stubborn drive to – as Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander de Croo said – “not let one country’s decision throw all women back to the dark ages.”

If that sounds melodramatic, conference participants said it isn’t. A doctor working in Nairobi recalled the human cost when safe abortion services aren’t available: “Seventy-two women died in my hands, most because it was too little, too late.” A doctor from Pakistan, where the majority of 2.25 million abortions in 2012 were clandestine, noted that unsafe abortion is a major reason why Pakistan is among the five countries that account for half of all maternal deaths worldwide. The issue is not only abortion. An estimated 12.8 million adolescent girls in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. And efforts to curb child marriage are at risk, too.

Women and girls should not die, or have their life choices restricted, because policymakers won’t accept that sexual and reproductive health are essential human rights grounded in international law. As MSI’s Cooke said on Thursday, “Refusal to acknowledge the need for family planning and abortion doesn’t mean that it’s not there.”

Those in the room at She Decides are ready to be bold. Will donors follow and be bold about standing up for women’s and girls’ rights?

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