Author’s Note: This is a collaborative post with Lucy Small and Jenny Talia.

This Sunday, April 7th, is World Health Day. Each year, the WHO deems one health issue that should be focused on and deems it as the “theme” for the day. This year it is high blood pressure.

Well, sorry to say it, but that is not the topic of today’s post. Don’t get us wrong; HBP is a major issue that contributes to heart disease, one of top causes of mortality around the world. Instead, the authors wanted to take a moment to focus on a topic that, actually, contributes to HBP by making our blood boil. That topic is reproductive health, the current attack of conservative legislation to reduce access to choices in the American context, and the effect of these debates on the global scale.

Now, unless you have been living under a rock for 40 years, you know about a little ground breaking case, called Roe v Wade, that extended the woman’s right to choose. You probably are also aware of how some states have been testing the limits of this ruling by passing some of the strictest abortion laws.

March 26, Governor Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota signed into law the United States’ most stringent abortion laws to date – making abortions illegal if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. With a transvaginal ultrasound, the fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as 6 weeks. North Dakota currently only has one abortion clinic that provides just under 1400 abortions a year. Arkansas passed a similar law that bans abortion after 12 weeks, when a fetal heartbeat can be detected by an abdominal ultrasound.

There are many reasons why these laws are detestable. They attack women’s right right RIGHT to choose. They put women’s lives at risk. More importantly, these laws have created a snowball effect to pass more of this anti-woman anti-choice legislation.

Here’s what Amy Poehler has to say about reproductive health.

And the thing we have to realize is that the same groups of people that try to attack abortion on a state level also get elected to Congress. In Congress, our local squabbles don’t just affect us; they affect lives around the world. In 1984, the Reagan administration first adopted the Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule. The Global Gag Rule states that federal foreign aid money would not go to organizations that provided abortion or abortion-related services. Presidents since have made a decision within their first week whether to rescind or reinstate the policy, following a predictable, partisan pattern. Obama rescinded the GGR, but that is guaranteed only as long as his presidency.

The difficulty, among many, with this policy is that the definition of “abortion-related services” is impossibly broad. It encompasses education, counseling, and training around abortion. By this definition, organizations can’t discuss abortion during pregnancy options counseling, neither can they bring it up in a sex education class. It also means that just about any family planning organization could be accused of providing abortion-related services.

Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation. Lose your U.S. funding and you might have to eliminate your family planning program. Stop providing abortions and abortion-related services, and people will seek abortions elsewhere. When those women live in rural, sub-Saharan Africa, for example, they can’t go to the fancy private clinic five miles away. They go with what might be their only available option—an unsafe, unsanitary abortion by an un(der)trained provider. Unsafe abortions lead to a host of complications, including fistula, perforated uterus, and infections that can lead to life-long health issues or even death. Approximately 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion worldwide; 18.5 million of those women live in developing countries. Unsafe abortion kills a whopping 47,000 women annually and contributes to 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide.

2008 Unsafe Abortion Data Worldwide. Source: WHO.

What’s more, induced abortions actually go UP when the Global Gag Rule is enforced. A study by Stanford researchers found that abortion rates significantly rose in areas strongly influenced by the policy during the Bush Administration. That’s right. Restrict abortion and access to family planning, and more people have abortions, mostly unsafe ones. It’s not rocket science, people.

Want to learn more about how our foreign aid practices affect women’s health issues worldwide? Here are some excellent resources.




Want to do more? Write to your members of Congress. Ask about international family planning. Donate to amazing organizations like UNFPA, Population Action International, International Planned Parenthood Federation, or Marie Stopes International.