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Letters & Op-Eds - 2003

raising our voices

The War on Women

Frances Kissling

March 2003

"For some women, reproductive choice means access to contraception and abortion to prevent unwanted births, a choice that is unavailable or insecure in much of the world. For other women choice means the opportunity to bear children, an option denied to millions by forced sterilization,population control policies, and state determination of family size."

— Estelle Freedman, author, No Turning Back

The 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo might as well have been a women’s rights conference. It demonstrated a stunning shift in the way most of the world’s governments approached the question of population.With substantial participation by women’s health advocates, many supported by the Global Fund for Women, the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, the prevailing paradigm shifted. From the demographically driven “too many people” policies of the 20th century, we collectively moved to a forward-looking human rights approach, which enabled women to make their own decisions through support for a full range of reproductive health services, education and employment.

It should come as no surprise to observers of religious and political fundamentalism that the only opponents to this groundbreaking program came from the Holy See (the Vatican delegation to the UN) and countries where religious extremists and conservative regimes dominated political life, such as Afghanistan. Now, a scant ten years later, a new coalition opposed to reproductive health has emerged. The efforts of the Bush administration to eviscerate the reproductive health gains of both US and the world’s women has been dubbed by the New York Times as a war on women. US international family planning policy under this administration has meant cutting off funding to the UN family planning agency, initiating an international gag rule that prohibits recipients of US family planning funds from counseling women about abortion or engaging in political speech about abortion even with their own funds. At various UN conferences on AIDS, the US has joined repressive regimes in Iran and Iraq, as well as the Vatican, in opposing condom education and provision as a means of preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS at a time when the faces of AIDS are increasingly those of women who are often unable to say no to dangerous sex.

In the US, the right to reproductive health care is threatened as never before. Government funding for both family planning and abortion is increasingly limited; sex education excludes information about pregnancy prevention. Even free speech has been limited—government Web sites were ordered to take down information about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV/AIDS transmission and remove scientific data that shows that the birth control pill does not cause breast cancer. After 30 years of a constitutionally protected right to legal abortion, the Bush administration is ready and anxious to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn that right.

The only bright spot in this grim picture is the continued commitment of women’s organizations to expanding reproductive health and rights. In the last several years, Mexico City has expanded access to legal abortion because groups like Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir and Equidad de Género, Global Fund for Women grantees, have developed sophisticated policy education and public awareness campaigns. Nepal, where many women were in prison for having abortions, made a 180-degree turn and legalized abortion as has Switzerland. South African women fought for and won the right to abortion in their new Constitution.

The war on the world’s women is just as unrelenting and deadly as all other wars. Each year more than 600,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth and from botched abortions. No one is more committed to the protection of women’s lives and the defense of their human rights than women themselves. Our continued support for their efforts is vital.

Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (CDD), or Catholics for a Free Choice, works within the Catholic social justice tradition to advance the reproductive health and rights of women. The Global Fund is committed to supporting the leadership of CDD. We have awarded 19 grants totaling $204,540 to seven groups of CDD throughout Latin America.

This article appeared in the March 2003 edition of Raising Our Voices: News from the Global Fund for Women.