“There’s a direct connection between a woman’s ability to plan her family, space her pregnancies and give birth safely, and her ability to get an education, work outside the home, support her family and participate fully in the life of her community,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in a speech she made at the State Department, to an audience full of international women’s health advocates.
Over the last few decades, American elections have had an even more profound effect on reproductive rights outside the United States than inside it. In fact, perhaps nowhere else is the difference between recent Democratic and Republican administrations quite so stark. Yesterday, after years in which the United States spread its anti-abortion ideology worldwide, Clinton declared that the United States will once again become a leader in promoting reproductive rights globally. Struggles over abortion and contraception are being waged all over the world, and it matters a lot where the United States comes down. A great many women’s lives are at stake. One woman dies every minute of every day in pregnancy or childbirth, and for every woman who dies, another 20 suffer from injury, infection or disease each minute of every day.
Republican presidents since Reagan have been instituting the “global gag rule,” which prevents American funding from going to organizations that so much as mention abortion as an option to their clients. That meant that even though the United States remained the world’s foremost provider of contraceptives, supplies weren’t going to organizations that had the infrastructure to deliver them. Toward the end of the Bush administration, Sara Seims, the director of the population program at the Hewlett Foundation, said that in many poor countries access to birth control was worse than it had been when she entered the field in 1979. The United States defunded organizations that, in many cases, were the only ones providing reproductive health services in their areas. That meant a loss of prenatal care, emergency obstetrics and cancer screening.
The United States has a lot of power in determining international norms regarding reproductive rights. The Cairo Programme of Action cemented these principles. It was a hard-fought agreement, and it wouldn’t have happened without American leadership. A coalition of religious conservatives, led by the Vatican and including a number of Muslim countries, put up furious opposition. At one point, the pope’s emissaries even offered to help Libya shed its post-Lockerbie pariah status in exchange for its support against the Cairo program. Iran allied itself with the Vatican as well. But the reactionaries lost. At the conference, when the Cairo program was finally adopted after grueling negotiations, women from around the world danced in the aisles.
During the Bush years, the United States went from being a major force for women’s rights worldwide to the most powerful member of the fundamentalist alliance. Indeed, at a time when the United States was excoriating Iran as part of the axis of evil, it was grimly ironic to watch American diplomats collaborate with that regime against women’s rights at various UN gatherings.
That’s why it was such a joy to hear Clinton enthusiastically reaffirm Cairo’s goals. “When I think about [Cairo], and the thousands of people who were part of it, who came together to declare with one voice that reproductive health care is critical to the health of women, and that women’s health is essential to the prosperity and opportunity of all, to the stability of families and communities and the substantiality and development of nations, it makes me nostalgic for conferences that are held that actually produce results,” said Clinton. She continued, “There is no doubt in my mind that the work that was done and the commitments that were made in Cairo are still really the bulwark of what we intend to be doing and are expected to do on behalf of women and girls.”
There’s an enormous amount of work to be done just to repair the last decade’s damage. The administration will have to follow up Clinton’s words with funding and diplomatic pressure. But if it acts on these priorities, it will save the lives of women all over the world.