By Karthik Shankar:
Bizarre. That was the primary word on everyone’s lips when the news came out about Purvi Patel’s sentencing last week. One word that has been brandished less frequently is ‘chilling’. For those of you sitting in Delhi, the case might seem like a weird outlier; one of those, a little too frequent, American news pieces on school shootouts or frivolous lawsuits.
But Purvi Patel’s case is important, not as a local concern in a conservative American state but as a daunting reminder that the United States still has the ability to influence similar decisions around the world. For decades, the United States through its donor agency USAID (United States Agency for International Development), has influenced decisions about abortion and contraceptives around the world by withholding funding for NGOs that provide abortion related services.
Abortion has long been one of the most hotly contested issues in American politics. The word itself can make or break careers. As with most hotbed issues, opinions are divided across party lines. Democrats support the right to choose while Republicans who subscribe to stronger ideas of Christian conservatism tend to staunchly oppose it. In fact, one of the primary concerns of Obama’s already controversial state provided health insurance system dubbed Obamacare, was the state mandating private corporates to fund contraception. It goes without saying that abortion is one of those words that are rarely mentioned by the political elite in the United States, much like Lord Voldemort. “I support the right of a woman to choose” or “I choose the right to life” are the closest moderate leaders come to in choosing their sides.
Indiana, the state in which Patel was sentenced under the foeticide law has been setting standards as far as right wing dogma goes. Republican governor Michael Pence has been working on overdrive to satiate his conservative base. A new state law allows private businesses to refuse to serve same sex couples under the guise of ‘religious freedom‘. Essentially, it means Christians can cite religion as a reason to not treat same sex couples on an equal standing with heterosexual couples. This applies for everything from hosting them in restaurants or providing them packing and moving services.
Pence has also been a strong crusader against federal funding of Planned Parenthood, the biggest abortion provider in the United States. He also increased regulations on abortion inducing pills, the same ones that Patel may have ordered online.
All these decisions reverberate in India because anti-abortion is one of those values that the U.S continues to export around the world. Although abortion is legal in India (unless you’re indulging in sex-selection), not all women can access abortion services equally. Someone in a metro city is more likely to have easier access to quality health centres as opposed to someone who might have to rely on unauthorised centres. NGOs do a lot to fill the gap in this regard.
USAID, has been instrumental in funding NGOs around the world. Its beneficiaries are from myriad fields – poverty eradication, women empowerment, disaster relief. However, reproductive rights is one area in which USAID has been playing an ideological game for decades. It was instrumental in funding the notoriously dodgy state sponsored sterilisation camps that led to the death of fifteen women in Chattisgarh last November.
When it comes to abortion, USAID is notoriously puritanical and unfortunately has the money to back it up to the tune of $22 billion. A global gag order on abortions called the Mexico City Policy restricts funding to NGOs that provide abortion related services, even if it is only counselling. In 2002, it meant sixteen countries no longer received USAID funded contraceptives. In Kenya it led to the closing of over five clinics of a nationwide family planning clinic. Like his Democratic predecessors, Obama repealed this policy.
However, even he has not been able to circumvent the extremely odious Helm’s Provision to the Foreign Assistance Act. The provision prohibits US foreign assistance from paying for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning” or to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions”. The broad phrasing of these provisions mean that it can be used to deny pregnant rape survivors abortions as has been the case in Congo’s armed conflict. It has been used to deny women in rural areas abortion care in Nepal where a bilateral agreement between the government and USAID led to the setting up of the Nepal Family Health Program (NFPH).
All these are stark reminders of how decisions in the United States have ramifications far beyond our borders. Let’s all hope Mike Pence does not decide to run for President in the near future. Then foeticide laws might be used to prosecute rather than protect pregnant women around the world.