Flagged Down“America First” Feminism Is Not the Future

Post-Its in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment in Ireland (Photo credit: George Hodan)

The January 21, 2017 Women’s March didn’t only bring nearly one million people to the streets of Washington, D.C. In an incredible show of solidarity for American women enraged and frightened by the new administration’s agenda, 673 “sister marches” were also held across all seven continents. Less than two days later, one of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was signing an executive order to reinstate the “global gag rule.” Created and implemented by the Reagan administration in 1984, the gag prevents any organization receiving American government funds from advocating for abortion rights, offering abortion services, or directing their clients to alternate abortion providers—even if those organizations use their own money while doing so. Though reproductive health advocacy groups quickly condemned the gag rule, that spirit which had been so colorfully and forcefully displayed just 48 hours earlier quickly melted into exasperated shrugs and resigned sighs. Global feminist networks can play a huge role in confronting misogynist policies home and abroad, while an “America First” feminism not only makes it easier for the right wing to enact anti-woman policies abroad, but it also deprives American feminists of valuable allies in the fight against the implementation of these policies in the United States.

Insouciance among the American public obscured the fact that the Trump administration’s gag rule expanded to an unprecedented scale of funding—approximately $8.8 billion, up from the approximately $600 million in family planning funds that previous gags had applied to. Under previous administrations, the ban applied only to family planning assistance provided through the State Department and the U.S. Administration for International Development—Trump’s new provisions expand the gag’s application to any countries that receive “global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies” of the United States. The ban even applies in countries where abortion is legal.

The gag rule has been devastating to women’s health around the world for decades already, and the impact will continue to be felt for years to come. A family health clinic in Kenya reported that as a result of the rule, clinic staff was reduced from 10 to four and that they had been unable to update their equipment. Melvine Ouyo, a reproductive health nurse, told NPR that “because we have not been able to provide outreach services, which basically serve disadvantaged communities, we cannot provide screening services for HIV and AIDS and be able to initiate treatment for those who test positive, and provide health education” to prevent the spread of disease.

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Clinics around the world report similar cutbacks with similarly catastrophic results. Planned Parenthood estimates that they could have “prevented 20,000 maternal deaths in 29 countries” had the gag not been implemented; similarly, reproductive health provider Marie Stopes International estimates that they will be unable to provide contraception to more than 2 million women they’re currently serving. Time Magazine reports that the loss of just those two organizations’ funding “could lead to a combined total of about 7.5 million unwanted pregnancies and 2.5 million unsafe abortions.”

A few months after reinstating and reinvigorating the global gag rule, the Trump administration withdrew funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which not only provides reproductive health services to women around the world, but also works to end child marriage, female genital cutting, campaigns to end fistula, and provides psychosocial support to women and girls in need the world over. Devex reported that in response to the cuts, UNFPA anticipated having to scale back programs in all 150 countries and territories where the organization operates. Arthur Erken, UNFPA’s head of communications said, “The impact is a direct impact. It is not abstract… When women use family planning and that is not there anymore, they become more vulnerable to unsafe pregnancies and unsafe abortions.” Indeed, previous research in sub-Saharan Africa found that the number of abortions increased under previous iterations of the global gag rule.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-woman policies promoted by the Trump administration abroad are coming home to roost. Just a few months ago, the Trump administration introduced a proposal to reform Title X, which was almost immediately dubbed the “domestic gag rule.” The Title X program provides $286 million, “which funds clinics for low-income women seeking contraception, prenatal care, disease screenings and the like.” The proposal which would prevent health care providers that receive Title X federal funds from discussing abortion with their patients; while the Department of Health and Human Services has not yet released the proposal in full, the implications are clear.

Any attack on women’s rights—be they the rights of women in other countries, the rights of immigrants seeking refuge, or the rights of marginalized women in our communities—is an assault on women’s rights everywhere.

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In June 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that domestic violence would no longer be viable grounds for seeking asylum in the United States, reversing an Obama-era reform. The World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of women globally have experienced intimate partner violence and that 38 percent of all murders of women globally were committed by their intimate partners. Sessions justified the change by asserting that asylum should not be claimed by those facing “private violence” like domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. Such a framing minimizes the reality of violence against women and girls globally—which the United Nations’ Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared a global pandemic in 2014. In relegating domestic violence to the margins, the Trump administration ignores the public effects and pervasive nature of this sort of violence—and threatens the lives and wellbeing of millions of women.

The treatment of immigrant women and families further speaks to the vast overlap between the Trump administration’s xenophobia and misogyny. As of January 2018, the ACLU had documented four immigrant women who were being denied abortions while in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In recent months, at least 2,700 families have been separated at the border and it has taken an order from a federal judge to put a pause on the deportation of families that have been united. Using family separation and child detention as a means of deterring immigration is inhumane—and its punitive quality clearly displays the administration’s indifference toward the suffering of women and children.

If Trump’s pick Brett Kavanaugh replaces Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the right wing’s anti-choice agenda will have an ally on the highest court for decades to come. While on the DC Circuit court, Kavanaugh wrote a dissent from the ruling that allowed a 17-year-old immigrant in government custody to obtain an abortion. In the dissent, Kavanaugh asserted that “The Government has permissible interests in favoring fetal life, protecting the best interests of a minor, and refraining from facilitating abortion.” Though it’s unlikely that Kavanaugh will answer questions directly about abortion and Roe v. Wade in a Senate hearing, this October 2018 opinion seems to be a clear indication of his stance.

While the Trump administration’s policies have been devastating to women’s health and safety the world over, reproductive health rights are not on the decline everywhere. The result of Ireland’s recent referendum, in which the country voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment—the statute  held that a pregnant woman and a fetus have an equal right to life and made abortion illegal under almost all circumstances—was a triumph for beleaguered reproductive rights activists. The impetus toward reform came from the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, an Indian immigrant who died from complications from a miscarriage after being denied an abortion in Ireland because a fetal heartbeat was detectable.

The success of the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment was due in part to strong networks of feminists around the world, as illustrated by the popularity of #HomeToVote. Irish expats returning to the country to vote used the hashtag to track their journey and non-Irish feminists and reproductive rights activists used it to express their support. The juxtaposition of the successful repeal of Ireland’s abortion ban—one of the strictest in the European Union—with the Trump administration’s policies highlights the necessity of international networks of reproductive health advocates, advancing domestic and foreign policies that recognize the fundamental nature of reproductive rights.

Academics Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink have written convincingly about the ability for “transnational advocacy networks” to work together to effect change across border. These networks bring together like-minded activists to raise awareness about pressing issues, to frame them effectively, as well as to hold politicians and institutions accountable and to leverage the power of allied states and organizations.  Their work documents the success of transnational advocacy networks in bringing about laws against violence against women and girls - and it appears that now is the time to revive and rejuvenate these activist networks to address the myriad of threats to women presented by the Trump administration.

One of the only consistent features of the Trump administration’s policies is misogyny, whether manifested through the curtailing of women’s reproductive freedom, a refusal to take seriously the tangible threats to women’s safety, or  referring to women as dogs or sexual objects. Feminist resistance to these policies must be equally resolute in rejecting assaults on women’s rights wherever they occur. Recognizing that any attack on women’s rights—be they the rights of women in other countries, the rights of immigrants seeking refuge, or the rights of marginalized women in our communities—is an assault on women’s rights everywhere is critical for intersectional feminism to reach its full global potential. Sister marches were just the start.

UPDATE: This story was updated on August 13 at 3:36 PST to reflect that one million people, not five million, attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2017.

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by Hilary Matfess
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Hilary Matfess is a Senior Program Officer with the Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria, a research analyst, and a freelance journalist. Her work focuses on the intersection of governance, security, and gender in sub-Saharan Africa. Her book, Women and the War on Boko Haram, will be available from Zed Books in November 2017. Follow her on Twitter @hilarymatfess