The Return of the Global Gag Rule Stinks of Neocolonialism


Here’s a question I’d like somebody to ask President Trump: “What’s a woman’s life worth?” I’d hazard a guess that his response would attempt to sound reasonable.

Since the word “woman” tends to evoke a particular type, much in the same way the colour nude is taken as beige with whispers of peach, I’d like to ask another: “Mr Trump, what worth do you see in the lives of women in the developing world?”

The answer to that is revealed in Trump’s decision to reimpose the global gag rule. For women in poorer countries reliant on American aid, their lives have been deemed a fair compromise in service of politicking and moralising. It is a brutal use of these women’s bodies in order to mount an ideological assault on the idea that a woman can have bodily autonomy. Women of developing nations have become expendable collateral damage in a war far closer to home. Who isn’t reminded of colonialism and the hierarchy of bodies that matter?

The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, stops any foreign NGO receiving US government aid for family planning from using their own funds to provide safe abortion services, if legal in that country. Not only that, the rule stops funding NGOs if they are: known to have referred women elsewhere to receive terminations; lobbying their own governments to liberalise restrictions on abortion law; campaigning against governments wanting to restrict abortions; and even educating the public on the fact that they can ask for safe legal abortions.

The rule has been brought in and out of existence by Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton nine years later, then George W Bush in 2001, and Obama in 2009, before Trump re-imposed it this week. Trump is in fact expanding the rule’s powers so that it no longer applies solely to family planning assistance given by the US government, but also to funding given to NGOs focusing on disease control.

Some 22,000 women will die this year because of unsafe abortions, and 8.4 million more will suffer serious illness or injury. Millions more will lose access to contraceptives and condoms because the NGOs who once provided them with such services will no longer exist. All because of the moral ideals of a powerful anti-choice lobby is intent on winning something, anything. How easy it is to play political football with the lives of people from the developing world.

It is the same contingent that calls NGOs working to make abortion part of family planning initiatives “cultural imperialists”. Cultural relativism and the pretence that they are making a charitable intervention is supposed to mask a commitment to enforcing their sense of morality elsewhere. They assume that using the argument of salvaging “traditional” cultures will protect against an essential truth: it is a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body and when. Never mind that women in the developing world are not a homogenous lump with identikit views on abortion. Like colonial missionaries of old, it’s all for the moral good of the natives, apparently.

An American friend recently pointed out the paradox in Trump’s promise to put Americans first, (with its implication of isolationism) and yet make America great again, a sentiment that is nothing if not outward-looking and colonial in spirit. What better way to neatly combine the two than to withdraw billions in funding to poorer nations while making them understand the almighty power of the US dollar?

During Trump’s inauguration speech, the language of moral virtuosity was barely contained, lest it sound too imperialistic for the moment. It has nevertheless been let loose. American religious values, by way of the global gag rule, will be imposed on countries as far flung as Kenya and Peru, Ethiopia and Nepal.

Last year Trump stated that in the event of abortion being criminalised, women who went on to have a termination would have to face “some form of punishment”. Asked by MSNBC’s host Chris Matthews about how you actually ban abortion, Trump said: “Well, you know, you will go back to a position like they had where people will perhaps go to illegal places.”

The casual “you know” seems all the more perverse appearing as it does before an acknowledgement that it would mean putting women’s lives at risk. It seems that the lives of women from the developing world have been taken as a good starting point.

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