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The Education Forum

George Bush and Abortion

John Simkin

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In 2001 President George Bush imposed what has become known as the "global gag" rule. It requires any organisation applying for US funds to sign an undertaking not to counsel women on abortion - other than advising against it - or provide abortion services.

As a result of this decision, millions of women throughout the Third World have been denied the best advice available. According to one report, nearly 70,000 women and girls died last year because they went to back-street abortionists. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered serious injuries. Critics of America's aid policy say some might have lived if the US had not withdrawn funding from clinics that provide safe services - or that simply tell women where to find them.

The British government has recently defied the United States by giving money for safe abortion services in developing countries to organisations that have been cut off from American funding.

The Department for International Development will contribute £3m over two years to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) whose clinics across the world have suffered badly because of Bush's policy.

"I think the UK is being very brave and very progressive in making this commitment," said Steven Sinding, director general of the IPPF. "We're deeply grateful for this gesture not only financially but also politically.

"Tens of thousands of women who depend on our services are not able to get them. We're committed to the expansion of safe abortion because in any society no matter how efficiently contraception is made available there will be unplanned and unwanted pregnancies."

The "global gag", he said, had increased the number of unsafe abortions by stopping funding to clinics that primarily provide contraception. "What I've never been able to figure out about American policy is why they persist in cutting down funding to organisations that are about preventing unwanted pregnancies."

DFID asked IPPF to produce a report on the scale of the damage caused by unsafe abortion. Death and Denial: Unsafe Abortion and Poverty. It reveals that an estimated 19 million women will risk the consequences of an unsafe abortion this year, of whom 70,000 will die. This accounts for 13% of the 500,000 maternal deaths each year.

Women's low status in many poor countries makes them vulnerable to sexual coercion, abuse and exploitation, says the report. Almost 50% of sexual assaults worldwide are against girls aged 15 or less.

The death and injury toll is highest in countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted, as in Kenya, where some 30% to 50% of maternal deaths are a result of unsafe abortion.

The Family Planning Association of Kenya, an IPPF member, chose to forfeit US funds rather than sign the "global gag" clause. It was forced to close three reproductive health clinics, scale back others and slash outreach programmes.

Many other organisations are affected by the global gag, including Marie Stopes, which is bigger in some countries than IPPF. The money from the new fund will be equitably shared among all those who have lost US funds. IPPF, which has itself lost $15m (£9m) a year for the past five years, together with the provision of contraceptives worth $2m to $4m, hopes the fund may eventually raise up to $35m.

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