This post is part of our online salon: A New Agenda for Girls' and Women's Health and Rights, co-hosted with UN Dispatch.
I applaud recent posts by Frances and Michelle recognizing that, for much of the world, unsafe abortion remains a critical issue for women's health and rights. I also agree with those who have said that U.S. leadership and support is crucial, and that addressing this problem should be high on the agenda for the next administration.
Here in Ethiopia, we have changed our law to expand the indications for legal abortion. The new law is a result of several years' effort by a coalition of health and women's rights advocates both in and out of government working together to revise Ethiopia's laws in accordance with the 1992 constitution.
While the global gag rule does not allow the U.S. to interfere in the sovereign affairs of another nation, the U.S. has nonetheless attempted to impose its own views on abortion on this government-led legal reform process in Ethiopia. USAID's country office used a firm hand in compelling Ethiopian NGOs receiving U.S. assistance to work under the gag rule. NGOs with expertise in health and human rights were forced to make a difficult choice: did they want to take part in the legal reform process, a democratic process in their own country, or did they want to receive U.S. money that could provide limited healthcare for more people?
In contrast with the current administration, I hope that a new administration will be zealous on the side of women, and will strive to ensure that they have access to legal and life-saving health services, including safe abortion. Ethiopia has a population of over 72 million people – the second largest country in Africa – and 22 percent of these are women of reproductive age, nearly 16 million women, aged 15-44. With a high maternal mortality rate and low rates of contraceptive use, unsafe abortion is an enormous health problem for women in my country. Although we have taken the important step of changing our law, that is not enough to make abortion safe. Leadership from large donors like the U.S. is essential in helping us grow our health sector to bring comprehensive reproductive health services to women – including birth control, STI and HIV/AIDS prevention, and yes, safe abortion care. Governments in Europe are already leading the way in funding global and country-level safe abortion activities in every region, including Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. Where is the United States?
I hope that the new American president will not only repeal the global gag rule on Day One; I hope he or she will also call for a non-discriminatory policy on women's access to basic health care. I hope he or she will make immediate plans to send a foreign aid bill to Congress that funds comprehensive, not selective, reproductive health programs. U.S. foreign aid reform should repeal the Helms Amendment that for more than three decades has prevented U.S. assistance from supporting the safe abortion care so badly needed to save the lives and health of women in Ethiopia and in many other countries.