“We are crying out here for [Biden] to repeal both the Helms policy and the Global Gag Rule,” said Monica Oguttu, founder and executive director of Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET) in Kenya, in reference to the two US policies that place abortion-related restrictions on US foreign assistance and global health spending. When sharing these hopes, Monica was speaking as a panelist in the International Women’s Health Coalition’s Seize the Moment speaker series for IWHC Leadership Council members. During Wednesday’s webinar, Oguttu, IWHC Associate Director for Advocacy and Policy Nina Besser Doorley, and Keifer Buckingham of Open Society Foundations highlighted the urgency of this pivotal moment for reproductive rights under the incoming US presidential administration.
IWHC and its global advocacy partners, like Monica, have been preparing for this strategic opportunity over the last four years. Just this year, IWHC was integral in the development and introduction of the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act (AHEA), a historic bill introduced in the US House of Representatives that would repeal the Helms Amendment, a federal statute that bars US foreign assistance funds from being used for abortion services. Since President Trump took office and reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, IWHC and its grantee partners in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Nepal, have been hard at work to document its impacts. The research has found that President Trump’s incarnation of the policy has increased barriers to health care, restricted the availability of health services, led to the breakdown of partnerships and fracturing of civil society, and caused the deaths of young women.
The first 100 days of the new Biden administration represent a pivotal window to advocate for meaningful change. Keifer Buckingham, senior policy advisor for International Public Health at Open Society Foundations, remarked that, “there are tons of executive orders that go out within the first hundred days of an administration, but traditionally the Mexico City policy [also known as the Global Gag Rule] gets done on day one. That tells you a little bit about where it sits in the American psyche of abortion politics. But, that is really just the first step.”
While the executive order is a necessary step to immediately end the Global Gag Rule, it is just the beginning for IWHC’s advocacy team and its partners, who are already engaged in ongoing advocacy to permanently end the policy through legislation. Together with allies in civil society, IWHC has laid the groundwork and is already building momentum for the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights Act (Global HER Act), a bill that would permanently end the deadly Global Gag Rule, a policy that prohibits foreign NGOs from receiving US global health funding unless they end all abortion-related activities. Yet, even when the policy is not in place, its impacts are profound. IWHC and its coalition partners are prepared to address the residual impacts of the policies. Nina Besser Doorley confirmed that a top priority of IWHC advocacy in the beginning of 2021 is “not to just end the policy on paper, but to mitigate its impacts as quickly as possible.”
Oguttu described how her colleagues in Kenya have already started to engage in timely advocacy that addresses the fear felt by abortion service providers around every US election, as well as the mistrust that has resulted from having networks and programs dismantled every four to eight years: “We are not going to wait until January. Just this week we engaged the media, they wanted to understand exactly what this means to us…Those are the strategies we need to start thinking of as advocates.”
While the Global Gag Rule is a top executive and legislative priority, it is just part of the bold, intersectional agenda for gender justice that IWHC and advocacy partners are fighting for; this agenda was outlined by IWHC and allied organizations in the Blueprint for Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice. Other top priorities for the incoming Biden administration include that the US:
- Eliminates discriminatory barriers to abortion access and advances unobstructed access to abortion services, including self-managed abortion;
- Recommits to international human rights agreements;
- Restores funding for the UN Population Fund;
- Enacts strong non-discrimination protections for patients, including protections that ensure providers’ personal or religious beliefs do not dictate patient care; and,
- Supports bipartisan legislation to permanently end the harmful Global Gag Rule.
Buckingham reminded the audience what we learned during the Obama administration—time is of the essence: “We spent the first half of Obama waiting for them to ‘do the right thing’… but we made assumptions that put us back a bit and took us longer to accomplish our goals because we said ‘hey look this is better than the previous administration, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.’ Going into this administration what will be important is that we as advocates start pushing hard from the beginning. We can’t wait. We don’t know if there is going to be a second term, we don’t know how long a Democrat and ‘pro-choice’ majority in the House is going to last, all the more reason for us as advocates to go in hard now.”
The wide-ranging discussion elaborated on how IWHC policy experts, advocates, and grantee partners are prepared to go in hard and seize the moment of opportunity to push the Biden administration to prioritize the health and rights of women and girls. For four years, IWHC has prepared for this moment through cross-sector organizing with LGBTQI rights movements, racial justice movements, and environmental justice movements in Washington, DC and worldwide. Together, we are ready to hold the administration accountable for enacting policies that respect human rights and advance bodily autonomy. To learn more about the work of IWHC and partners to advance a bold new policy agenda for gender justice in 2021 and beyond, you can view a recording of the webinar, here.
The Seize the Moment speaker series is a program offered to IWHC Leadership Council members, and will continue in 2021 to showcase diverse perspectives and new opportunities for the global women’s movement. The IWHC Leadership Council is comprised of individuals who commit their time, energy, and financial support to develop an understanding of the key issues affecting women and girls globally, to build IWHC’s profile in their communities, and to raise funds on behalf of IWHC. Learn more about the IWHC Leadership Council.