Undermining access to reproductive health services during COVID-19 is cruel and detrimental to women’s health and well-being.
The Trump Administration’s latest attempt to roll back reproductive rights and deny essential health care is yet another step toward realizing their extreme anti-rights agenda.
In a letter to the United Nations (U.N.), John Barsa, the acting administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has asked for all references to sexual and reproductive health to be removed from the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan (Global HRP).
Why? Because, he claims, the UN is using the pandemic to advance access to abortion by including it as an “essential” health service.
But here’s the thing: Abortion is essential health care —including during a pandemic. Abortion is a time-sensitive health-care service that cannot be deferred without profound consequences for pregnant people and their families.
We know that in times of crisis, women and girls are disproportionately affected. There are an estimated 1.8 billion people living in crisis settings and 168 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Approximately one in four of these are women and girls of reproductive age. They are at an increased risk of unplanned pregnancy and unsafe abortion for many reasons, including a lack of social and family networks, disruptions in access to contraceptive supplies, and higher rates of sexual violence.
In some crisis settings, such as South Sudan, studies show that up to 65 percent of women and girls experience physical or sexual violence—double the global rate.
The Global HRP calls for $6.7 billion for the COVID-19 response in crisis settings. Germany is the largest source of funding followed by the U.S.’s commitment of $173 million—16 percent of the overall anticipated need.
The intent of the Global HRP is to fundraise for all fragile and conflict-affected areas, while allowing national experts within crisis-stricken countries to allocate the use of those funds. These funds are crucial to meeting the reproductive health needs of women and girls during the pandemic.
The U.S. government is also the largest humanitarian contributor to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh providing $820 million—with not a cent going toward safe abortion care in a country where abortion is legal.
Ipas, an international reproductive health and rights organization, is committed to ensuring that reproductive health care, including abortion, is available to people everywhere, including in humanitarian settings.
At the world’s largest refugee camp, in the Cox’s Bazaar district of Bangladesh, for example, we have worked with partners to ensure women and girls living there can still access critical health care during the pandemic. Earlier this month, the government of Bangladesh, along with relevant agencies, took the important step of recognizing that reproductive health services—including abortion—are critical and essential.
Now, during COVID-19, guaranteeing access to care is more important than ever. The U.S. administration shouldn’t act as a barricade.
A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute on the potential impact of the pandemic on sexual and reproductive health is alarming: A 10 percent decline in contraceptive use could lead to an additional 49 million women without access to modern contraceptives and 15 million unintended pregnancies.
If 10 percent of safe abortions become unsafe because women cannot access safe abortion services, there could be an increase of three million unsafe abortions and 1,000 more maternal deaths.
That’s in addition to the roughly 25 million unsafe abortions each year that often lead to serious injury or loss of life.
The UN’s Global HRP plan (under attack by Trump) respects the autonomy of individual countries to determine the health services needed in humanitarian settings in their countries.
When reproductive health is mentioned, it is included in statements that support the continuation of existing health systems and services during the pandemic, as well as treating COVID-19 patients. Without such statements, overburdened health-care workers and systems may overlook women who are using contraceptives, or are survivors of sexual violence, during this pandemic.
“Outrage Against the Trump Administration’s Letter … Is Universal”
The outrage against the Trump administration’s letter to the UN is universal among organizations, including Ipas, working in reproductive health and in humanitarian settings. The Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises—a global coalition of health-care providers and advocates working in humanitarian settings—stated the “de-prioritization of SRH services during previous epidemics has led to stark increases in preventable suffering and death amongst girls and women in humanitarian settings.”
And the International Women’s Health Coalition, a non-governmental organization, sent a letter, signed by 293 organizations, to the UN’s Secretary General and the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that stripping language from the Global HRP will “have a detrimental impact on people who need and rely on sexual and reproductive health services.”
Trump Attacks on Reproductive Health Are “Nothing New”
Although appalling, the Trump’s administration attempts to destroy the reproductive health, rights and bodily autonomy of women and girl is nothing new.
Earlier this month, Trump halted U.S. funding for the WHO—a critical voice for protecting women’s reproductive health during COVID-19—illustrating his administration’s alarming efforts to systematically weaken human rights.
In the very first month of his presidency, Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, banning organizations providing counseling, referrals, services or advocacy for safe abortion from receiving all global health funding from the U.S. government—about $9 billion in aid.
In March 2019, at the Commission on the Status of Women—the UN’s largest meeting of women’s rights advocates— the administration formed an international coalition aimed at restricting access to sexual and reproductive health, including abortion, and to promote “traditional family values.”
Last July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which narrows the meaning of human rights by putting religious freedom above all other rights, thus threatening the reproductive health, sexual equality and the rights of LGBTQ people. Pompeo also withheld funding to the United Nations Population Fund—the U.N.’s sexual and reproductive health agency— for allegedly forcing abortion or sterilization practices.
During this global pandemic, the Trump administration should be actively working to assist global efforts to ensure that life-saving health care, including abortion, is accessible and available to all who need it.
Instead, the U.S. government acts like an ideological bully—even as governments, economies and people are at a breaking point.
At the end of the day, this is all about politics; and the real audience here is the American right-wing base and other conservatives in the lead up to the 2020 elections.