They say fact is stranger than fiction, and we are living in times that exemplify this. How can one take to the extreme a reality that already feels beyond the pale? Last week, the Trump-Pence administration tried their hand and surpassed our historically low expectations, yet again, when the State Department struck from its annual human rights report the full range of abuses and violations experienced by women, girls, LGBTQI people and other marginalized communities around the world.
Historically, the report has served as an affirmation by the U.S. government of the full human rights agenda and established solidarity with individuals, organizations and movements everywhere who seek to protect and advance human rights. To step away from exerting even negligible authority on issues of human dignity and wellbeing is under-charted territory as far as the U.S. government is concerned. In a tactical move from covert action to overt attack, the U.S. State Department, under the leadership of former president of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, effectively and willfully denied reality, doctored the truth and neglected its core mission.
The signal is clear: That women, girls, LGBTQI people and other marginalized communities are not people. Or at least not people deserving of protection from rights violations.
While the report takes a decidedly low view of human rights and who holds them, a pattern is emerging that deserves some analysis. Whether it is omitting, paring down or even inventing new language, the Trump-Pence administration doesn’t always limit itself to 280 characters. Employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been directed to avoid using seven words in budget documents—“evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” transgender” and “fetus.” A leaked White House Domestic Policy Council wish list for domestic and international programs proposed equal funding for “fertility awareness methods” and modern contraceptives. In case you were wondering, “fertility awareness” is code for natural family planning—known for its lower effectiveness rate and lower popularity among women. For adolescents, the administration recommends “sexual risk avoidance,” also known as, you guessed it, abstinence-only programs.
PAI’s advocacy record teaches us to interrogate both motivation and incentives whenever a government or policymaker becomes a wordsmith. So: What to make of this new and selective vocabulary?
First, what gets measured gets done. With the intentional removal of key language from the human rights report, the government is complicit in the eradication of a baseline against which future progress—or lack thereof—will be measured. We measure, for example, efforts to make programs rights-based and not coercive because we prize autonomy and agency. This simple measurement has transformed the realities of millions of women and girls.
Second, what gets silenced is forgotten. Once removed, a word or a concept can be nearly impossible to re-introduce. The United Nations teaches us this—that even in negotiations over non-binding resolutions, governments look for what is included and what is not in an effort to pace their own efforts against global consensus. Abortion disappears, even when used in a context like “rarer” and “reducing,” and any woman anywhere who seeks an abortion suffers.
And third, words have no power on the pages of a dictionary, but can become potent and dangerous when applied to real lives. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert claimed the report isn’t downgrading coverage of women’s issues—just avoiding duplication and sharpening its focus. This would all be welcome news if it weren’t combined with the administration’s own concerted attacks on the rights of women and girls in the United States and overseas.
Attacks on Title X have begun in full swing, and they feel eerily similar to harmful U.S. foreign policies like Global Gag Rule. In 2017, the Trump-Pence administration signed legislation that allows states to deny federal funding to providers who perform legal abortions. New grant guidelines released last week now prioritize providers who focus on abstinence-only and natural family planning methods. The impact such policies would have in the U.S. is predictable, as anti-woman U.S. administrations have been testing such policies out on women overseas for decades—we will see more unintended pregnancies, more unsafe abortions, more maternal and child deaths and the continued erosion of women’s fundamental human rights and autonomy.
What’s needed? A strategic consolidation of the rights movement, a more robust grassroots mobilization for global women’s issues and more funding for a field that is literally the cornerstone of almost every other development issue. That, and an unapologetic litmus test for administrations about the belief in human dignity for all and the value of investing taxpayer dollars based on data and evidence—instead of junk science, propaganda and discrimination.
Suzanne Ehlers is President & CEO of PAI, and has worked for the last 20 years to promote women’s health, rights and empowerment across the globe. She leads the organization in its mission to ensure that every person has access to quality, effective and affordable reproductive health care.