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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
US exports anti-abortion policy
By Nadene Ghouri
Social Affairs Specialist
BBC Radio 5

Wendy Wright is a genuinely concerned woman. Concerned Women of America is the name of the political lobby group she works for. Fiercely anti-abortion, their aim is to bring biblical values to US policy.

"It's funny how the moral positions are usually the healthier, safer and politically sensible positions," she says, speaking at her home in Washington.

On his first business day in office, with the support of voters like Wendy, President George W Bush started a war few people have heard about - his war on abortion.

Pro-choice and anti-abortion activists outside the US Supreme Court
The anti-abortion movement is growing stronger under Bush

He reinstated an old policy from the Reagan days called the Mexico City policy or "gag rule".

The rule states that the United States will not allow its overseas aid money to be used to fund groups that carry out or provide any kind of advice or information about abortion.

Hundreds of women's health organisations in the poorest nations of the world - places where maternal mortality and infant death are high - faced a tough choice. Either sign the gag rule and be silenced on abortion, or refuse and lose millions of dollars in US aid.

Most refused to sign. As a result, thousands of family planning clinics across the developing world have closed their doors, making access to vital contraceptives hard to come by.

The US aim was to cut abortion worldwide, but has it worked?

Back-street abortions

I travelled to Ethiopia - a country where abortion is illegal but where a recent study at Addis Ababa hospital found half of all female deaths there were caused by botched back-street abortions. Here the cost of silence can be high.

If they are forced to give birth they throw the children into latrines or abandon them for the hyenas to eat them
Amare Badada, Ethiopian Family Guidance Association

One of the most upsetting moments was standing outside a one-room tin hut where Asmara, a prostitute, had bled to death just hours earlier.

Aged 22, she received condoms from the local Marie Stopes clinic. It closed when the US cut its cash after it failed to sign. She got pregnant and died.

"She had no money to go to hospital, so became too weak to move, then she died," her friend told me.

On the other side of Addis Ababa is Molu, living with nine children in one room. She has been told one more baby will kill her.

But the clinic that gives her the pill for free is shutting. There is no other clinic.

Molu says if she gets pregnant again, she will carry out her own abortion with wire.

"Either way I will die," she says with chilling fatality.

'Hypocritical'

In the region of Nazareth in Ethiopia's highland plains, I met Amare Badada of the Ethiopian Family Guidance Association.

Mr Badada lists rape, forced marriage and genital mutilation as part of daily life for women.

"These women will always find a way to abort somehow," he said. "If they are forced to give birth they throw the children into latrines or abandon them for the hyenas to eat them."

Ethiopian woman and two children
Marie Stopes says the policy has not cut the number of abortions

Mr Badada refused to sign the gag rule, and has since watched his organisation's family planning clinics close down one after the other. In the region of Nazareth, there were 54 clinics last year. Next year there will be just 10.

Each clinic serves approximately 500 women who walk an average of 10 kilometres (six miles) to get there. The impact of the closures is immense.

"Under the gag rule, I can treat a woman who comes bleeding after an illegal abortion but I am not allowed to warn her of the dangers before she goes," Mr Badada said. "We should not be told what to think and say.

"It is hypocritical to allow US taxpayers' money to be used to fund abortion in the States but not here.

"The US is driving women into the hands of back-street abortionists."

Getachew Bekele, Ethiopian director of Marie Stopes International, who also refused, says: "It hasn't worked to cut abortion. All it has done is deprive women of condoms."

Abstinence

A key aim of the American anti-abortion lobby is to silence Marie Stopes, which is lobbying to overturn the abortion laws in Ethiopia and other places where it is illegal.

Under President Bush, the anti-abortion movement is stronger than ever.

Supporters believe every woman has the right to have as many babies as God plans. They also believe the high death-rate of mothers in labour, and the numbers of unwanted babies can be tackled with an alternative solution - abstinence.

Mr Bush has won plaudits for his promise to spend $15bn to fight Aids, but few people know that one-third of the money set aside for prevention is to go to faith-based, abstinence-only programmes.

But not all Americans agree. Wendy Turnbull works for Population Action International - a pro-choice lobby group.

"How can we look Africa in the eye and say here you go - here's the money, but we tell you how to spend it. How arrogant is that?"

But Wendy Wright remains convinced America knows best.

"It's not that I know what is right for other women," she says. "It's that I know what is right."

You can hear Nadene Ghouri's report Bush's Other War on Radio 5 Live at 1030 on Sunday 29 June.


SEE ALSO:
US abortion pioneer seeks ban
17 Jun 03  |  Americas
US House bans abortion method
05 Jun 03  |  Americas
House backs Bush on abortion
16 May 01  |  Americas
Bush blocks abortion funding
23 Jan 01  |  Americas
Roe v Wade: Key US abortion ruling
16 Jan 03  |  Americas


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