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What will happen to women’s rights now that Donald Trump is President?

Donald Trump has surrounded himself with men who are anti-abortion and promised to defund Planned Parenthood. The global gag rule is just the beginning.

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 This rule, formally called the Mexico City Policy, is something of a political football: it was revoked when Bill Clinton came into office, enforced under George Bush and revoked by Barack Obama before being signed again by Trump.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 Hellerstedtlikely 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.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

Photo: Getty
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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed