On the website of Planned Parenthood, the American organisation which is the world’s biggest provider of reproductive healthcare services, there is a page of women’s stories. Shawanna, now a mother of one and healthcare worker, had an abortion aged 17. Her mother had died of ovarian cancer, and she was raising her little sister when she found out she was pregnant. “It was a difficult decision,” Shawanna says. “But I already was a parent to my sister, and I couldn’t financially or emotionally provide for another child. I also wanted to finish high school.”
Another woman, Rebekah, was working two jobs in community college and unable to afford health insurance when she saw a flyer for Planned Parenthood: “Because I was able to get preventative care, including birth control, I was able to fulfil my life goals: to graduate college and become a mother.”
Now activists are worried that services like those offered by Planned Parenthood – which, aside from contraception and abortion, also provides things like cervical smear tests and STD screening – are at risk.
One of Donald Trump’s first acts on becoming president was to reinstate the “global gag rule”: a law that defunds non-government organisations if they so much as mention abortion as an option to pregnant women. This rule, formally called the Mexico City Policy, is something of a political football: it was revoked when Bill Clinton came into office, enforced under George Bush and revoked by Barack Obama before being signed again by Trump.
So why are activists so worried? Firstly, because Trump has decided on a stronger iteration of the global gag rule that not only demands NGOs disclaim their involvement with any abortion services if they want to receive funding for reproductive health, as it did previously, but requires them to do so to receive health funding at all. Suzanne Ehlers, who runs the reproductive health organisation PAI, calls this the gag rule “on steroids“.
Under Trump, the rule will impact an estimated $9.5bn in foreign aid funding, as opposed to $600m, and will mean organisations “working on AIDS, malaria, or maternal and child health will have to make sure that none of their programs involves so much as an abortion referral”. (Unsafe abortions, incidentally, are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide, with the World Health Organisation estimating that a woman dies of an unsafe abortion every eight seconds.)
If the president is willing to defund AIDS outreach services on the basis that the NGOs who administer them might mention abortion, activists reason, it seems unlikely that Trump will soften his campaign-trail rhetoric in relation to women’s reproductive health. And that rhetoric is scary: at one point, the president insisted he would seek punishment for women who access abortion illegally, akin to the current legal situation on the island of Ireland – though he later rowed back on this comment, saying that the doctor would be prosecuted instead as the “woman is a victim in this case”.
Trump has also said that he will defund Planned Parenthood, even though he acknowledges that only a small proportion of their services relate to abortion. To quote the president himself:
“I’m totally against abortion, having to do with Planned Parenthood. But millions and millions of women – cervical cancer, breast cancer – are helped by Planned Parenthood. So you can say whatever you want, but they have millions of women going through Planned Parenthood that are helped greatly. And I wouldn’t fund it. I would defund it because of the abortion factor, which they say is 3 per cent. I don’t know what percentage it is. They say it’s 3 per cent. But I would defund it, because I’m pro-life. But millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”
Will he go through with it? One thing we know for sure is that he has already surrounded himself with men who are hardline on both abortion and contraception access. Mike Pence, the vice-president, signed legislation as governor of Indiana which would have banned abortion even in cases of “genetic abnormality” and held doctors “legally liable if they had knowingly performed such procedures”. (The law, which also required that fetal tissue from terminations be buried or cremated, was blocked by a Supreme Court judge before it came into effect.)
His cuts to Planned Parenthood in Indiana led to the closure of an HIV clinic, which was followed by an HIV outbreak. During the presidential campaign, he vowed to consign Roe v Wade (the ruling that allows American women to have abortions) “to the ash heap of history where it belongs”. It was also during Pence’s term as governor that Indiana resident Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in jail for “feticide” after allegedly terminating her own pregnancy, a conviction overturned after she had served 18 months. Tom Price, who Trump has chosen to lead the Department of Health, supports a nationwide ban on abortion after 20 weeks (most states currently opt for a 24-26 week limit; the limit in Britain is 24 weeks in most circumstances).
Appointments still to come could prove even more dangerous for women’s rights. As Rebecca Traister points out in New York Magazine, Trump has promised to nominate “pro-life justices” to the Supreme Court. “With one Supreme Court seat maddeningly open and three sitting justices over the age of 78,” Traister writes, “this . . . promise could have a long-lasting impact: It would take only two appointments to get to a Court that would likely overturn Roe v Wade.”
It is not clear whether these men believe women are so simple that they’ll simply stop seeking abortions if they’re not easy to get, or whether they believe that making abortions difficult, costly and potentially unsafe is an apt punishment for women who have sex for any purpose other than procreation.
It is not unreasonable to suspect the latter. We know, after all, what brings down the abortion rate – sex education and easy access to contraception, particularly long-term options such as IUDs. In areas where Planned Parenthood clinics have been shut down, the rate of STDs and unplanned pregnancies has risen. But give these people an inch, and they’ll take away your birth control: the American Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare” (now also in the Trump-Pence crosshairs), currently provides roughly $1.4bn of mandatory contraceptive funding to American women each year.
We know, too, that making abortions illegal does not stop women seeking abortions, but leads only to more women dying as a result of them – and that women who are already mothers have more abortions than any other group, often citing the wellbeing of existing children as a motivation. Presented with this fact, the rhetoric from the American right concerning the sanctity of motherhood quickly reveals itself to be empty: grounded in a loathing of, not reverence for, women. The crisis in women’s health that activists can already see on the horizon is as intentional as it is dangerous.
Women, however, are not taking the president’s anti-choice sentiments lying down. The Centre for Reproductive Rights, which describes itself as a non-profit legal advocacy organisation that defends the reproductive rights of women worldwide, has already filed lawsuits challenging restrictions in Alaska, Missouri and North Carolina, with more challenges – based on a recent Supreme Court decision regarding abortion access in Texas, Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt – likely during the president’s term.
Following the Women’s March on DC, further actions are also scheduled explicitly in support of Planned Parenthood, and local fundraisers have been organised across the country. One Chicago brewer even released a special beer, called Trumpty Dumpty, to raise funds.
Reading the testimonies on the Planned Parenthood website, one thing comes up again and again: action. From Shireen, who became a peer sex educator at school, to Carly, who organised an abortion speak-out at her college, each woman has something to say about helping other women – whether it be distributing condoms or becoming a healthcare provider themselves.
Add to that the estimated three times as many people that crowd scientists believe turned out for the Women’s March as compared to Trump’s inauguration – nobody tell Sean Spicer – and one begins to suspect that the resistance to the new president’s draconian reproductive policies will be, as he might put it, “yuge”. It’s time to worry. But it’s not yet time to give up hope.
You can donate to Planned Parenthood here.
Women in Northern Ireland can be punished for accessing an illegal abortion – just as Trump originally proposed. Donate to the Abortion Support Network, which helps women from the island of Ireland access safe abortions, here.