Global Justice Center Blog

Read Akila Radhakrishnan's Speech at the Feminist Majority Foundation's 2018 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference

2018 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference
March 17, 2018 Washington, DC
Text of Preparted Remarks

"I think we all remember the image of Donald Trump, on his third day in office, surrounded by a group of white men, with Mike Pence looking anxiously over his shoulder, signing an executive order stripping women and girls around the world of their access to safe abortion services. And he didn’t just do it like Presidents before him—like Regan and George W. Bush—he did it bigly. 

And for once it wasn’t just posturing or an act to make up for his tiny “hands.” It really was huge. Where it previously only applied to US family planning funds, Trump expanded this censorship, the Global Gag Rule, to cover all US global health assistance—affecting up to $8.8 billion in funding, rather than $600 million. 

That was just day 3 and it was just the beginning. Well, actually it wasn’t. Our story actually begins in 1973 shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and with two men named Jesse Helms and Henry Hyde.

In reaction to Roe, anti-choice actors in the United States consciously decided that if they couldn’t prevent a right to abortion, they would just make it a right that is impossible to access. Sort of the opposite of how we’ve treated the right to bear arms.

A part of this plan was the enactment of statutory restrictions on funding for abortions both domestically—the Hyde amendment—and internationally—the Helms amendment. Together, these restrictions have acted for over 40 years to cause immeasurable harm to women and girls. 

The Hyde amendment prevents the use of US federal funds to pay for abortion services except in cases of rape, life, and incest. 

Like Hyde, the Helms amendment prevents the use of US federal funds—this time for foreign assistance—from being used to pay for, or “motivate,” abortion speech or services. The Helms amendment has continuously been in effect since 1973 and today applies to all foreign assistance, and unlike Hyde, without any exceptions for rape, incest or life endangerment. What does this mean? It means that in war zones in Nigeria and Iraq, where women and girls have been systematically raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, women are denied abortion services, in violation of their rights under international human rights and humanitarian law.

And that’s not all. Over the years, other restrictions have been added on to Helms to fully censor the provision of abortion with US foreign aid and at times directly and other times indirectly, with any aid. For example, the Siljander amendment prevents speech that lobbies “for or against abortion.” In short, any speech about abortion at all. 

These congressional restrictions that have continually been in effect are exacerbated by the Global Gag Rule when it’s in effect. While the Helms and Siljander amendments affect what can be done with US funds, the Global Gag Rule dictates what can be done with funds from any donor. First enacted by President Regan, the Gag Rule prevented the provision of abortion “as a method of family planning” or the “active promotion of abortion”—essentially covering every type of activity related to abortion service provision or speech—from information provided from a doctor to their patient, to research on unsafe abortion, to legal reform, to actual service provision, you name it, it’s probably prohibited by the Gag Rule. 

This has interfered with progressive reform of abortion laws, technical guidance around abortion and more all around the world, including in countries like Kenya and Malawi, where unsafe abortion is one of the main causes of maternal death. Reforming abortion laws isn’t just a moral or feminist prerogative—it’s a legal one. Human rights law is clear that restrictions on abortion violate a variety of human rights, including the right to life, the right to non-discrimination, the right to health, the right to information and the right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

This is because human rights law recognizes what happens when women are denied access to or information about safe abortion services—they take unnecessary risks with their own lives to obtain one. Studies have long shown that the legal status of abortion has very little to do with overall abortion rates—however, the legality of abortion is tightly correlated with how safe abortion services are. Unsafe abortion is the only preventable cause of maternal mortality; yet despite this, 25 million unsafe abortions happen around the world annually. 

Simply put, abortion isn’t just a matter of choice, it’s often a matter of life or death. And conservative attitudes towards abortion, whether here at home or abroad, reflect a failure to understand that reproductive autonomy and choice are inextricably linked with women’s equality.

Which brings us back to Trump…and Pence. The harm this administration has caused to women and girls in their 421 days in office, both here at home and around the world, has frankly been astounding. On the back of the reinstatement and expansion of the Gag Rule, this administration has also defunded the United Nations Populations Fund, the leading UN agency dedicated to sexual and reproductive health, gutted key offices related to the promotion of gender equality around the world, and even censored information about women’s reproductive health and rights in the State Department’s annual human rights reports. And that’s just internationally. 

Domestically, we continue to see severe roll-backs on abortion access. Emboldened by this administration (and perhaps its Supreme Court nominees), Mississippi just passed an (unconstitutional) 15-week ban on abortion this week. A study recently found that 58% of women of reproductive age currently live in a state that is considered hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights. By contrast, only 30% of women live in states that are considered “supportive” of abortion rights. These attacks aren’t limited to the legislative level. At the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd has used his power to deny young immigrant women in detention access to abortion, and in one case, considered attempting to “reverse” an abortion—a procedure not grounded in scientific evidence or medicine. Practices that may also likely amount to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of US abortions under international human rights law. 

The suppression of information and science is a reoccurring theme, whether it’s through provisions that compel speech from doctors like Dr. Parker here to provide women with false information about the dangers of abortion, or conversely, prevent doctors from providing information to women about their options or referral to safe services. Such mis- or dis-information is related to the same fear—that if women are able to access abortion freely and without significant barriers, they may discover that they can have safe, fulfilling sex lives and maintain control over their bodies, and their lives, at the same time. A terrifying thought indeed.

So let’s go back to that photo. In the game of “Government Apprentice,” we seem to be playing, most if not all of those men in that photo will soon be gone. But we need to focus on how we are going to change that photo.  We need to elect feminists who are unapologetically pro-choice. We need to elect people of color and young people. That way, the next time we see that photo the people look more like this panel and this room. And so that it’s about the signing of a piece of legislation that actually promotes women’s rights. Maybe even, dare I say it, provide public funding for abortion. 

Tags: Abortion, Geneva Conventions, International Humanitarian Law, Censorship, Helms Amendment, USAID, United States, August 12th Campaign