Trump order tests EU credibility on women's rights
Delegates from some 40 countries will gather in Brussels on Thursday (2 March) to minimise damage from the US government's recent decision to scrap funding for global health initiatives.
"We are hopeful this global event will put the rights of women and girls at the heart of the political debate during a difficult time," said Irene Donadio, advocacy officer at the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), a major health provider that stands to lose $100 (€94) million.
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Donald Trump had only been president for three days when he restored the so-called Mexico City policy, which bans his administration from funding foreign NGOs that “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations".
Also referred to as the "global gag rule" by some women's rights groups, the policy prohibits US-funded NGOs from even talking about abortion, for instance, by informing women of their legal rights.
The “gag rule” was instated by Ronald Reagan at a 1984 United Nations conference on population in the Mexican capital.
Since then, each Democratic administration has overturned the rule within days of taking office, and each Republican one has reinstated it, reflecting the central role abortion has played in US politics.
Billions in shortfall
Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway have already promised €10 million each to "She Decides", a global crowdfunding campaign launched by the Dutch minister of development, social democrat Lilianne Ploumen.
More than €200,000 have also been gathered from individuals, mostly Dutch people, paying into the trust online.
Further pledges are expected at Thursday's donor conference.
But Trump’s decree could cause US funding shortfalls of between $600 million (€565mn) and $9.5 billion to global health initiatives.
She Decides has already been dubbed an "abortion fund" by its conservative adversaries, even though the money will not be spent on abortions.
The IPPF’s Donadio also said: “Not one dollar of the funding IPPF and its member associations receive from the US government is actually spent on abortion.”
She said her budget was spent on anti-HIV programmes, protecting women from Zika virus-carrying mosquitos, cervical cancer screening, contraceptives, and sex education.
Nobody knows how big the US shortfall will be because Trump memorandum was too broadly phrased to tell.
"The policy used to apply to a $600 million pool dedicated to family planning. But this time, it could touch the entire foreign health budget," said Neil Datta, executive director at the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF), a network of European parliamentarians working to promote sexual rights and reproductive health (SRHR).
The amount of lost aid could even reach $9.5 billion, he said.
The European Parliament last month urged EU states to condemn Trump’s decision.
EU development commissioner, Neven Mimica, will address Thursday's forum, but won't announce any new money for SRHR initiatives, a spokesman said.
"The commission is currently analysing potential funding gaps and what best approach to take," he said.
The EU spends €300-350 million a year on family planning. Some organisations backed by the EU also received financing by the US, and the commission is currently examining the effects of defunding on their projects.
Donadio said She Decides was unlikely to make up for the US shortfall.
“It will kickstart a very important conversation that will continue for months to come," she said, however.
The US to-and-fro on the gag rules has created a political laboratory for measuring the effects of family planning.
One Stanford University study showed “robust empirical patterns suggesting that the Mexico City policy is associated with increases in abortion rates in sub-Saharan African countries”.
A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute said abortions increased by 50 percent in rural areas of Ghana the last time that the US downgraded assistance.
Datta, from the parliamentary forum, said he expected family planning to become stigmatised under Trump.
"Addressing these issues will become much more difficult," he said.
The global gag rule could jolt wider opposition to SRHR, just as it did in the George W. Bush’s administration (2000-2008). Some of the suspended aid might also be redirected to anti-abortion campaigners.
Trump himself does not seem to have a fixed view on abortion.
Last year, he took five different positions on abortion in three days.
His vice-president, Mike Pence, hails from the evangelical Tea Party movement, however, and some see the gag rule as Trump's thank-you to his conservative supporters.
One high-level EU source told this website the bloc was not eager to enter into diplomatic conflict with the Trump administration, but was prepared to help meet shortfalls.
"Supporting SRHR is a concrete example of what we could do," the source said.
Malin Bjork, a Swedish left-wing MEP from the GUE/NGL group, predicted: "There will be problems."
Bjork is a co-founder of All of Us, a cross-party forum in the European Parliament that promotes SRHR.
"There is a lack of political leadership on women's rights. The European Parliament as a whole backs women's rights, as we saw in the plenary last week. But I haven't heard a sound from heavyweights in this house, or in the council, speaking out against the global gag or in support of She Decides," she said.
A recent mapping by the Green group in the European Parliament identified that at least 111 MEPs were "favourable to the anti-choice cause", including one fifth of the centre-right EPP, the parliament's largest political group.
The new president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, told a press conference in December that women in the developing world "are forced to make abortions" when asked about his support of the One of Us citizens campaign, which aimed to stop the funding of abortions through EU money.
Conservative feeling is even stronger in some national capitals, as Poland prepares to tighten up abortion laws.
Croatia will probably oppose any EU donations to She Decides. The country's ministry of foreign affairs recently told press that the “EU must make its own decisions on development assistance autonomously, and not as a response to US policy".
Meanwhile, legal abortion is forbidden under all circumstances in the current Maltese EU council presidency.
Donadio, however, said she remained hopeful.
"We have a completely different situation than just a year ago. Women are marching for their rights, in the US but also in Europe. Sexual rights and reproductive health is higher on the agenda than in a long time, giving us the chance to make things right," she said.