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US Women Under Siege, At Home and Abroad
by Katherine Stapp    Common Dreams
Entered into the database on Monday, September 12th, 2005 @ 09:27:44 MST


Untitled Document

Efforts by the George W. Bush administration to undermine international gender equality initiatives -- most recently ahead of a key United Nations (U.N.) World Summit -- are part and parcel of a broader campaign to erode reproductive rights at home, say many U.S.-based activists.

Washington, through its pugnacious new U.N. envoy John Bolton, is seeking some 750 amendments to the upcoming summit's outcome document, which focuses on poverty reduction and women's empowerment by 2015 as outlined in the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The summit will bring together world leaders, U.N. agencies and civil society groups in New York from Sept. 14-16 to deliberate on U.N. reform -- and assess progress towards the MDGs.

In paragraph 12 of the summit document, for example, which reads, "We reaffirm that gender equality and the promotion and protection of the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all are essential to advance development, peace and security," the United States wants to delete the phrase "in particular for women and children".

"I'm not surprised that the whole direction has been toward a watering down of the objectives outlined in the Cairo population conference, which was an attempt to bring women and women's status as moral beings to the fore," said Lloyd Steffen, chair of the religious studies department at Lehigh University in the state of Pennsylvania, and an ordained minister who has frequently spoken out over U.S. obstructionism.

"What you find out is how much patriarchal religion is still alive and well and directing the course of events in American political life."

The 1994 Cairo conference forged a new global strategy on population issues that was more responsive to women's needs, including reproductive rights, laying the groundwork for future gender equality initiatives like the MDGs.

Steffen and others see Washington's agenda as essentially political payback to the conservative religious right that helped propel Bush to a second-term victory last November.

"The irony is that there's an incredible disconnect between what the campaigns revolve around -- gay marriage, for example -- and the policies that later emerge, which are more about Iraq, oil, etc.," said Steffen, who also sits on the board of the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

On the international stage, Washington also created a stir in March when it tried to amend the proposed declaration of an important women's rights conference to emphasize that delegates could not "create any new international human rights" -- or affirm the right to abortion.

And, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently declared that all foreign and U.S.-based advocacy groups receiving USAID funding should adopt a policy "explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking".

"Such a policy further stigmatizes the very people we are trying to help," Philip D. Harvey, president of a Washington-based group called DKT International that has sued USAID over the policy, told IPS last month.

"It requires us to condemn what sex workers do for a living, thus undermining the relationship of trust and mutual respect required to effectively conduct AIDS-prevention work," he said.

Activists here point out that the administration's hostility toward abortion and even some forms of birth control has extended into virtually all agencies of the U.S. government.

"The current administration, led by Bush, has an anti-choice, anti-women's rights agenda and we see that playing out both domestically and internationally," said Karen Pearl, interim president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in an interview with IPS.

For example, in its new 130-page protocol on treatment for rape victims, the U.S. Justice Department deleted information about emergency contraception and pregnancy prevention, drawing complaints from more than 270 national, state and local groups.

And just last month, reportedly under pressure from the White House, the Food and Drug Administration overruled the advice of its own scientific advisory panels by again postponing a decision on over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception. This prompted Susan Wood, the agency's chief administrator for women's health, to resign in frustration.

"The recent decision announced by the commissioner about emergency contraception, which continues to limit women's access to a product that would reduce unintended pregnancies and reduce abortions, is contrary to my core commitment to improving and advancing women's health," she wrote in an e-mail to colleagues.

Bush has also signed into law the so-called 'Abortion Non-Discrimination Act' (ANDA) -- an amendment originally proposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- which women's rights activists say will affect U.S. reproductive healthcare in the same way that the global gag rule weakened international reproductive health services.

Under ANDA, Medicare and private insurance companies can bar doctors from providing abortion referrals, performing abortions or counseling patients about their options -- even if the patient asks for the information.

Addressing an anti-abortion rally in Washington in January, Bush promised that his administration was working to promote a "culture of life" through laws like the so-called "partial birth" abortion ban and the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act". Bush told the marchers that a United States without the right to abortion is slowly coming into view. "We're making progress in Washington," he said.

According to the National Council for Research on Women, the administration has also quietly deleted and altered information on women's issues from numerous government agency websites.

For example, information about the use of condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases was changed to say that the effectiveness of condoms was "inconclusive".

And, the National Cancer Institute's website was altered in 2002 to claim that studies linking abortion and breast cancer were inconsistent, until an outcry from scientists resulted in an amendment to say abortion is not associated with an increased risk.

Planned Parenthood's Pearl has emphasized that the administration's more extreme stances -- like urging abstinence over condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention -- are isolating it from mainstream opinion both in the United States and abroad.

"Washington doesn't speak for women here or the people around the world," she said. "Denying women access to reproductive services by restricting money or by not filling prescriptions is bad for public health, and the world economy. Women around the world don't want to live in poverty, and family planning is the key to addressing that."