Efforts by the George W. Bush administration to undermine international
gender equality initiatives -- most recently ahead of a key United Nations (U.N.)
World Summit -- are part and parcel of a broader campaign to erode reproductive
rights at home, say many U.S.-based activists.
Washington, through its pugnacious new U.N. envoy John Bolton, is seeking some
750 amendments to the upcoming summit's outcome document, which focuses on poverty
reduction and women's empowerment by 2015 as outlined in the U.N.'s Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs). The summit will bring together world leaders, U.N. agencies
and civil society groups in New York from Sept. 14-16 to deliberate on U.N. reform
-- and assess progress towards the MDGs.
In paragraph 12 of the summit document, for example, which reads, "We
reaffirm that gender equality and the promotion and protection of the full enjoyment
of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all are essential to advance
development, peace and security," the United States wants to delete the
phrase "in particular for women and children".
"I'm not surprised that the whole direction has been toward a watering
down of the objectives outlined in the Cairo population conference, which was
an attempt to bring women and women's status as moral beings to the fore,"
said Lloyd Steffen, chair of the religious studies department at Lehigh University
in the state of Pennsylvania, and an ordained minister who has frequently spoken
out over U.S. obstructionism.
"What you find out is how much patriarchal religion is still alive
and well and directing the course of events in American political life."
The 1994 Cairo conference forged a new global strategy on population issues
that was more responsive to women's needs, including reproductive rights, laying
the groundwork for future gender equality initiatives like the MDGs.
Steffen and others see Washington's agenda as essentially political payback
to the conservative religious right that helped propel Bush to a second-term
victory last November.
"The irony is that there's an incredible disconnect between what
the campaigns revolve around -- gay marriage, for example -- and the policies
that later emerge, which are more about Iraq, oil, etc.," said
Steffen, who also sits on the board of the Washington-based Religious Coalition
for Reproductive Choice.
On the international stage, Washington also created a stir in March when it
tried to amend the proposed declaration of an important women's rights conference
to emphasize that delegates could not "create any new international human
rights" -- or affirm the right to abortion.
And, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently declared
that all foreign and U.S.-based advocacy groups receiving USAID funding should
adopt a policy "explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking".
"Such a policy further stigmatizes the very people we are trying to help,"
Philip D. Harvey, president of a Washington-based group called DKT International
that has sued USAID over the policy, told IPS last month.
"It requires us to condemn what sex workers do for a living, thus undermining
the relationship of trust and mutual respect required to effectively conduct
AIDS-prevention work," he said.
Activists here point out that the administration's hostility toward
abortion and even some forms of birth control has extended into virtually all
agencies of the U.S. government.
"The current administration, led by Bush, has an anti-choice, anti-women's
rights agenda and we see that playing out both domestically and internationally,"
said Karen Pearl, interim president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of
America, in an interview with IPS.
For example, in its new 130-page protocol on treatment for rape victims, the
U.S. Justice Department deleted information about emergency contraception and
pregnancy prevention, drawing complaints from more than 270 national, state
and local groups.
And just last month, reportedly under pressure from the White House, the Food
and Drug Administration overruled the advice of its own scientific advisory
panels by again postponing a decision on over-the-counter sales of emergency
contraception. This prompted Susan Wood, the agency's chief administrator for
women's health, to resign in frustration.
"The recent decision announced by the commissioner about emergency contraception,
which continues to limit women's access to a product that would reduce unintended
pregnancies and reduce abortions, is contrary to my core commitment to improving
and advancing women's health," she wrote in an e-mail to colleagues.
Bush has also signed into law the so-called 'Abortion Non-Discrimination Act'
(ANDA) -- an amendment originally proposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops -- which women's rights activists say will affect U.S. reproductive
healthcare in the same way that the global gag rule weakened international reproductive
Under ANDA, Medicare and private insurance companies can bar doctors from providing
abortion referrals, performing abortions or counseling patients about their
options -- even if the patient asks for the information.
Addressing an anti-abortion rally in Washington in January, Bush promised that
his administration was working to promote a "culture of life" through
laws like the so-called "partial birth" abortion ban and the "Unborn
Victims of Violence Act". Bush told the marchers that a United States without
the right to abortion is slowly coming into view. "We're making progress
in Washington," he said.
According to the National Council for Research on Women, the administration
has also quietly deleted and altered information on women's issues from numerous
government agency websites.
For example, information about the use of condoms to prevent the spread of
sexually transmitted diseases was changed to say that the effectiveness of condoms
And, the National Cancer Institute's website was altered in 2002 to claim that
studies linking abortion and breast cancer were inconsistent, until an outcry
from scientists resulted in an amendment to say abortion is not associated with
an increased risk.
Planned Parenthood's Pearl has emphasized that the administration's more extreme
stances -- like urging abstinence over condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention -- are
isolating it from mainstream opinion both in the United States and abroad.
"Washington doesn't speak for women here or the people around
the world," she said. "Denying women access to reproductive services
by restricting money or by not filling prescriptions is bad for public health,
and the world economy. Women around the world don't want to live in poverty,
and family planning is the key to addressing that."