This post is by the Global Center’s Rabita Aziz.
Toni Bond Leonard, president and CEO of Black Women for Reproductive Justice (BWRJ), was 12 years old when she became pregnant. Her mother, a single woman unable to earn an income due to debilitating multiple sclerosis, ran their household on the $300 a month she received from social welfare services. To pay for an abortion for her child, Leonard’s mother skipped paying rent and other utility bills for a month, and she consequently fell behind in paying bills for years. Leonard went to a suspect abortion clinic to have the procedure done. She and her mother believed the pregnancy had been terminated.
It wasn’t until seven months later that she had to seek further medical attention for an infection and learned the abortion had been botched. Subsequently, the hormonal imbalance that resulted from the botched abortion caused a tumor to form on her pituitary gland. Hardly a teenager, Leonard found herself having to cope with the idea that she might not live to see her 20s.
Her story was conveyed by fellow BWRJ member Loretta Ross, to an audience of congressional staffers and reproductive rights advocates at a congressional briefing entitled “The Impact of US Policy Restrictions on Women’s Reproductive Health at Home and Abroad,” sponsored by Ipas, the National Network of Abortion Funds, and BWRJ. Leonard, Ross, and other panelists highlighted the impact of the Hyde Amendment banning domestic funding of abortion, and the Helms Amendment, the international counterpart. Just as the lack of abortion services in maternal and reproductive health services is harmful to women, the lack of HIV/AIDS services as a part of comprehensive maternal care services is harmful to the same group of underprivileged women at home and abroad.
The group of women who suffer most from the lack of HIV/AIDS services is the same group that suffers most from the lack of abortion and reproductive health services: women in Sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of the 67,000 deaths worldwide due to unsafe abortion occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the majority of HIV/AIDS cases among women. The failure of policymakers to integrate such services into global health initiatives may result in crises much more grave than the current epidemic. The panelists rightly acknowledged that the US has made valuable contributions to the fight against global HIV/AIDS, whether through the reduction of mother-to-child transmission or helping women obtain treatment. However, the recent flat lining of funding for global HIV/AIDS programs is beginning to reverse the ground gained in recent years, with disadvantaged women being turned away from HIV treatment clinics. Policymakers need to readdress US policies and funding dictums that have greatly harmed women in the past and may continue to harm women in the future if not overturned.
The panelists said that since its passage in 1976, the Hyde Amendment has harmed poor women in the US, as women under Medicaid are unable to seek abortion services, forcing them to either deliver unwanted pregnancies to term and consequently becoming more deeply entrenched in poverty, or to seek unsafe abortion procedures, increasing their risk of developing health problems. The Helms Amendment, adopted in 1973, prohibits US funding for abortion-related activities outside of the United States. In 2001, the Bush Administration reintroduced the so-called “gag rule,” which prohibits US funding for foreign organizations that work to promote access to abortion with their own, non-US government funding.
These restrictive US policies have resulted in increased risk to the health and lives of women in the developing world, and consequently have hampered women’s development and have harmed communities.