Trump moves against vulnerable women
24/1/17; Catherine Marshall; is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer
No-one doubted that Donald Trump’s ascendancy would deeply fracture the world as we know it. But few of us could have anticipated the swiftness with which his orders would impact some of the world’s most disadvantaged citizens: vulnerable, impoverished women.
With just one signature, the newly-installed president snatched from these women access to services that are essential to their physical and mental wellbeing and their economic prospects — and, in so doing, endangering countless lives.
The global gag order signed by Trump on Monday requires health organisations that receive funding from the US to refrain from providing abortion services and advice on abortion, even if the money is not used to fund such services.
Since the bulk of these organisations’ work involves the provision of contraception to communities in developing nations, Trump has effectively removed the right of millions of women to decide when to have children and how many they will have.
In denying these women contraception, he is effectively forcing them to carry, bear and raise every child they conceive, whether through traditional marriage or child marriage, rape or incest or consensual sex.
It’s a deliberately spiteful and manipulative ploy: spiteful because he is hurting vulnerable women whose healthcare practitioners will refuse to submit to such coercion; manipulative because he is engineering a crisis among disadvantaged women that will set them back decades and strip them of the tiny bit of autonomy they currently have.
It’s deliberate because he is assuaging conservatives and the religious right, who helped bring him to power and who are determined that America’s landmark Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision — which recognises a woman’s right to make her own personal medical decisions, including the decision to have an abortion — be overturned.
And it ignores the basic fact of biology: that though it takes two people to conceive a baby, only one of them is required to bear physical responsibility for its growth and birth. Too often — especially in impoverished countries — this woman must bear financial responsibility for her offspring as well.
“Here was an obscenely wealthy man imposing his beliefs on women he will never meet, whose stories he will never hear and whose circumstances he will never seek to understand.”
This grassroots reality makes the context in which Trump signed the order all the more galling: here was an obscenely wealthy man, one whose wife and daughters have access to the best care — and contraception — money can buy, one who has probably never in his life entered a slum or the home of an overwrought mother-of-ten or a rehabilitation centre for sex trafficked girls or a rape survivors’ clinic, imposing his beliefs on women he will never meet, whose stories he will never hear and whose circumstances he will never seek to understand.
Surrounded by seven white men (and not a single woman) he reinforced his much-demonstrated belief that women are objects to be controlled — and enjoyed — by men. And while not the first Republican president to sign this order, Trump stamped it with his peculiar brand of malice by expanding it further still: where previously it applied only to family planning funding, it now applies to all global health assistance programs.
‘This means that it puts at risk 15 times more funding, and millions more women and families,’ writes Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen on her official Facebook page. ‘This targets some of the most effective health organisations at work in the developing world. Without funding, these organisations won’t be able to provide HIV services and maternal healthcare, or counsel women on the risks of Zika infection.’
It’s a message that underscores Trump’s determination to wield power over women’s lives by dictating the terms of their fertility. As the feminist Gloria Steinem said in an interview in 2015, ‘It took us a while to figure out, but patriarchy … is about controlling reproduction. Every economics course ought to start not with production but with reproduction. It is way more important.’
But this attempt to control women’s reproduction will not put an end to abortion. The statistics are clear: around 42 million women with unintended pregnancies undergo abortions each year, nearly half of them in unsafe circumstances, according to a 2009 study. Of these, around 68,000 women die, making abortion one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.
If Trump and his conservative and religious allies are determined to eradicate this procedure, they should direct aid to where it is needed most: in the provision of contraception. Studies prove that where contraception is readily available, women experience fewer unplanned pregnancies, abortions and maternal deaths.
‘And when women have control over their reproductive health,’ says Shaheen, ‘it improves the long-term health of mothers and children and creates a lasting economic benefit.’
But if Trump can’t be convinced to do the right thing by women, perhaps he should ask himself what he would do if he were in their shoes. Perhaps he would reach the same conclusion as the old Irish taxi driver Steinem once met in Boston: if men could get pregnant, she told Steinem, abortion would be a sacrament.