Updated 1 month, 4 weeks ago

'Global gag rule' could have dire impact in Latin America, activists warn

Donald Trump’s reversal of abortion-related aid policy will have a “chilling impact” on Latin America, say family-planning campaigners in a region that already has some of the world’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality.

The so-called global gag rule, which was signed into effect by the new US president on Monday, withholds USAid funding from any organisation that offers abortion services or information.

Not only will this hit wider civil society programmes, such as contraception provision and campaigns to combat HIV/Aids, but aid workers, academics and activists warn it could also bolster political opposition to women’s reproductive rights.

“This is very discouraging,” said Mary Ellsberg, director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University. “It will have a chilling impact on the work done by US organisations that work with Latin American women’s groups that advocate safe abortion. It also adds to the recent conservative backlash in the region, which has seen bans on all forms of abortion, including in cases of child rape and where the mother’s life is at risk. This will have a huge negative effect on maternal mortality.”

This predominantly Catholic region already has some of the world’s strictest anti-abortion laws, with devastating social and health impacts.

In Peru, for example, it is estimated that 13% of all maternal deaths are the result of botched back-street abortions. In recent years, the trend in many countries is towards a stricter interpretation of the law. In Paraguay, there was an outcry when a 10-year-old girl was denied an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. In El Salvador, doctors were horrified when the authorities ruled that a young woman – globally known as Beatriz – had to take a foetus without a brain to term despite the risk to the mother’s life.

Civil society groups have tried to ameliorate the situation through education campaigns, political advocacy and individual support. The Trump administration’s policy will make that work more complicated and harder to fund, say observers.

The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, has been a US political football for more than three decades. First imposed by Ronald Reagan in 1984, it was later rescinded by Bill Clinton, reinstated by George W Bush, and rescinded again by Barack Obama.

But campaigners fear Trump’s latest version could be the most extreme yet because it covers “all global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies”, according to a White House statement published on Monday. This potentially covers $9bn in aid funding, including the $575m that the US donated to reproductive rights causes worldwide.

“It will cause a crisis. We saw that under the Bush administration,” said a former US official who spent two decades working in overseas programs for reproductive health. “The US is the single largest bilateral funder for family planning programs in the world. Some of the money goes to the United Nations, but it’s mostly for civil society. And many of those groups work on safe abortions, as well as contraception and HIV, so they are all threatened.”

Trump’s policy is likely to hit Central America harder than South America, where Brazil and other emerging economies had already turned down US aid in this field because it came with too many conditions.

But in Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, groups that work on HIV and Zika prevention and family planning could also lose funding if their US partners are deemed in any way to fall foul of the gag rule.