Bush's war on women

To further its anti-abortion crusade, the US denies aid to any NGO that offers safe terminations to

When you start researching unsafe abortion, the photographs and stories are so visceral that they carve themselves into your mind like a scalpel. You find yourself able to quote details of the internal damage caused by drinking a litre of bleach. You dream at night about the news story describing the effects of a uterus being stabbed, repeatedly, with a bamboo stick.

A report published by the US non-profit agency the Centre for Reproductive Rights includes a typical tale. In Breaking the Silence, an anonymous Kenyan health worker recalls the story of a pregnant 17-year-old he encountered, "a house-help with no money . . . [who] went to somebody to try to remove the pregnancy. And the person she went to did not know the anus from the vagina. He destroyed her anus, rectum, uterus and some of the small intestine. The girl now has a permanent colostomy."

There's a reason that the health worker chose to remain anonymous, a reason which rests, bizarrely, on the political interests and religious beliefs of a man on another continent.

In January 2001, on his first day in office, President George W Bush issued an executive order that had lain dormant throughout most of the Clinton administration. The Mexico City Policy, more commonly and descriptively dubbed "the global gag rule", had been instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1984, and represented a tightening of the Helms Amendment 1973, which had made it unlawful for non-governmental organisations to use any funds granted by the US Agency for International Development (Usaid) either to provide safe abortion (in countries where it is legal) or to lobby for it (in countries where it is not).

The global gag rule allowed the US to use its huge financial clout (it currently provides 40 per cent of the global aid budget for population programmes) to take its anti-abortion stance much further. From the moment it was signed, NGOs receiving any help at all from Usaid - accepting supplies of condoms, for example - were explicitly prohibited from using any of their other funding to provide safe abortion or lobby for it.

The prohibition goes so far that NGOs which want to keep their Usaid funding aren't permitted to cite statistics on unsafe abortion. Even telling the stories of women who have been maimed by unsafe procedures could be interpreted as lobbying - hence the shyness of that Kenyan health worker.

As such, in areas where organisations accept the gag, the abortion debate is skewed, entirely dominated by anti-abortion voices - just as Bush intended. (In areas where organisations have refused the gag, the effect is often exactly the same, since loss of funds can force them to close.)

The rule is thus fundamentally undemocratic, and also imperialist - after all, in countries where abortion is legal, it overrules national sovereignty. As Laura Katzive of the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights notes: "This is a policy that would be unconstitutional if applied to US citizens, because it's a condition on free speech. In the United States, you can't say 'you can express an idea, but, if you do, we'll withhold funding', so it's applying a double standard to NGOs overseas. That's shocking, particularly in the context of a foreign policy which is meant to promote democracy."

According to estimates, between 19 and 20 million unsafe abortions are performed worldwide each year, 97 per cent of them in developing countries. Annually, this kills roughly 68,000 women. That's eight women an hour, or a planeload per day - before you start weighing the toll of maiming and mutilation, infections and lost fertility, that affect many millions more each year.

As Beth Fredrick of the International Wom en's Health Coalition points out, when it comes to those 68,000 deaths, the US government "has blood on its hands". But the destructiveness of the gag rule spreads much further. Those organisations that fall foul of it also run family-planning programmes that provide a huge range of services - from distributing contraceptives to giving sexual health advice to providing information on maternal nutrition and breastfeeding. Organisations that refuse to accept the rule's restrictions, and subsequently lose their funding, can be left with no option but to close clinics that serve some of the world's most vulnerable people. (It is estimated, for instance, that only 10 per cent of the African population has ready access to contraceptives.)

The rule wreaks havoc

To give a few examples of the havoc this has wreaked, in 2003 Planned Parenthood of Ghana was forced to close down a programme that had been distributing contraceptives and providing advice on HIV/Aids to an estimated 2.2 million Ghanaians. The Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia was forced to close a huge range of outreach programmes after losing more than 30 per cent of its external funds, cutting staff and reducing volunteer numbers from 1,000 to 90.

Sixteen developing countries have lost their whole Usaid supply of birth control, because the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the leading NGO in this field, refused to accept a gag. Obviously, it is impossible to calculate the precise effect of the rule on the spread of HIV/Aids, but it is safe to surmise that it has been devastating - there seems a good chance that the resulting death toll will far exceed that caused by unsafe abortion.

And once these clinics close, they can't easily be rebuilt, even if an NGO secures new funding from another source. As Fredrick notes: "The expertise and infrastructure usually take so long to put together, and many health systems are so fragile, that when you lose a clinic it's hard to regain that strength, or even that capacity."

Ironically, it is likely that the policy may have increased rates of abortion. When clinics close, "women don't get other sexual health information or contraception", points out Louise Hutch ins of the UK group Abortion Rights, "so they're more likely to become pregnant again and suffer from sexually transmitted diseases".

The more you read about "the global gag rule", the more hideous it seems. This is a law of poli tical convenience, which sacrifices some of the world's poorest women (and, indeed, men) to appease the anti-abortion fervour of the religious right in the US. It seems no coincidence that the Helms Amendment was enacted in 1973. That was the very year when abortion became legal in the US, and the American right appears to have been determined to redress the balance by using the country's financial advantage to undermine safe abortion abroad.

As the global gag rule stands, it is clearly at odds with US law and the views of the majority of Americans, who support safe abortion. As Marcel Vekemans, senior medical adviser to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, says: "It's a case of, 'do what I say, not what I do'." Knowing how difficult it would be to overturn Roe v Wade in his own country, Bush has instead exported his personal convictions, and those of his closest supporters, worldwide.

As Laura Katzive notes: "If Americans were more aware of the policy, there would probably be more objections to it, but, because it doesn't affect our interests directly, it has been allowed to stay in place." Beth Fredrick concurs. "They were very calculated in putting forward the global gag rule . . . after all, no woman in a Kenyan slum is ever going to be called on to vote for President Bush or any of his cronies, are they?"

Since last November's US midterm elections - with that significant swing towards the Democrats - there has been speculation that it may now be possible to overturn the rule. This was last attempted back in 2005, when Senator Barbara Boxer sponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill that was swiftly passed in the Senate. At that stage, however, Bush threatened a veto, and the attempt faltered.

Despite the new distribution of power, Bush still holds that veto, so it is probably too soon for optimism: the activists I spoke to are holding out instead for a Democratic president in 2008. Last year, the UK made a small dent in the situation by pledging £3m to organisations that had been denied US funding as a result of the gag rule. In financial terms, of course, that's minimal, but it showed the UK boldly - and unusually - opposing US foreign policy and making a strong, clear case for the need for safe abortion services worldwide.

As Fredrick says, the rule denies women in developing countries "their humanity. It's dis respectful and undignified and it's based on an idea that women are something other than full human beings." While the gag rule stands, Bush's hands just get bloodier.

To find out more, visit http://www.globalgagrule.org

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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