Marx once wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. As a feminist who was on the frontlines of battles to protect reproductive rights in the time of George W. Bush, that seems particularly apt today.
I remember clearly how I felt when I woke up on Wednesday, November 8, 2000, not knowing who was president. I remember the mixture of hope and trepidation, knowing that a few “hanging chads” in Florida could mean the difference between a president who would advance women’s sexual and reproductive rights and a president who would undermine them. The month of counting and recounting that followed was an emotional rollercoaster. On December 12, when the US Supreme Court handed Florida’s electoral votes to Bush, my hopes were dashed. From Bush’s first day in office—when he reinstated the harmful Global Gag Rule that prevents organizations receiving US funding from even talking about abortion—women’s autonomy, bodies, and rights were under attack.
I was then at the start of my career fighting for women’s and girls’ rights. I spent the next eight years working in solidarity with feminists around the globe to oppose Bush’s regressive policies.
At times it was absurd: I remember listening to US diplomats argue the merits of the Billings Ovulation Method as a form of contraception. Most of the time it was depressing: US diplomats tried to keep adolescents in the dark about their bodies and their burgeoning sexualities, and sought to counter any mention of unsafe abortions and reproductive rights in global agreements. In some ways, Bush’s extreme positions sparked a strong counter response and a transformation in global leadership on these issues. Latin American countries began the transition from opposing access to abortion to championing reproductive rights. Countries from across Asia banded together to isolate the US and oppose its bullying tactics. The European Union emerged as a stalwart leader. The US was politically isolated. We did not advance global policies on sexual and reproductive rights during the Bush years, but we managed to prevent setbacks.
The Obama Administration ushered in a welcome change as the US became a leader on women’s health and rights globally. Just last year, US diplomats led the charge for gender equality, women’s rights, and reproductive rights to be at the center of the groundbreaking 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. They fought to protect the rights of women and girls of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. They were stalwart champions of adolescents’ rights to comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health care.
Some say it is too early to tell what a Trump presidency will mean on this front. I disagree. Trump’s stated desire to restrict access to safe, legal abortion services, combined with the most regressive Republican Party platform on sexual and reproductive rights, spell disaster. Trump has put together an anti-choice council to advise him. He will be listening to Vice President Mike Pence, an extremist governor who sought to force women in Indiana to hold funerals for fetal remains. Trump’s repudiation of multilateralism means that, at best, the US will no longer prioritize critical global agreements, like the Sustainable Development Goals. At worst, the US will undermine them, especially if President Trump follows through on his promise to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a critical pact for the health and well being of the world’s people and planet.
The election of another strongman, President Rodrigo Duterte, in the Philippines, the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey after the failed coup attempt, bodes poorly for human rights, and particularly women’s rights, globally. The countries of the European Union, also in the midst of social and political upheaval, have fallen silent on these issues. In this context, the very real possibility that the Trump Administration will work hand in hand with the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Catholic Church to undermine women’s human rights globally is extremely worrying.
Yet the global feminist movement gives me hope. Our willingness to work together in solidarity to resist attacks on our rights gives me hope. Just this year, feminists in Poland successfully resisted efforts by a right-wing government to further curtail women’s already limited access to abortion. In Argentina, thousands of women went on strike to protest gender-based violence and push the government to actually enforce its progressive laws to combat it. In El Salvador, a harsh law that criminalizes abortion in all cases—including when a woman’s life is at risk—looks set to fall. And globally, IWHC and feminists from around the world mobilized to put women’s rights at the center of the 2030 Agenda. We will work even harder to defend it and prevent serious setbacks for women and girls.
We are resilient. We will fight. If nothing else is clear right now, this is: our work is more important than it has ever been.