Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community
We Can't Do It Without You!  
     
Home | About Us | Donate | Signup | Archives | Search
   
 
   Headlines  
 

Printer Friendly Version E-Mail This Article
 
 
Bush's 'Global Gag Rule' Blamed for Abortion Deaths
Published on Friday, December 12, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
U.S. Policy Blamed for Abortion Deaths in Ethiopia
'Global Gag Rule' Prevents Agencies from Discussing Pregnancy Alternatives
by Gavin du Venage
 

DUNA, ETHIOPIA -- Yemmi Samta didn't know that her 14-year-old-daughter, Saron, was pregnant until she found her unconscious and bleeding profusely on the dirt floor of her ramshackle house.

Samta begged a neighbor to load Saron onto a donkey cart and take her to the nearest clinic, 12 miles away. But the girl died on the way from septicemia, a form of blood poisoning, and loss of blood caused by an illegal abortion.

"I held her and pleaded to God not to take her," Samta recalled. "God took her to his arms, and I saw the life go from her body."


Most family planning groups agree that U.S. administration policy banning abortion services by federally funded agencies -- the "global gag rule" enacted by President Bush during his first days in office -- could not have come at a worse time for Ethiopian women.

Saron's death represents a staggering reality about women and mortality in Africa. African women have a 1 in 16 chance of dying while pregnant, according to a report released last month by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF.

Across Africa, most women have limited or no access to prenatal care, contraception or competent doctors, due to poverty and poor public health systems. In Ethiopia, at least 55 percent of all maternal deaths are abortion- related, and unsafe terminations are the second biggest killer of women of child-bearing age after AIDS, according to a study by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

In Ethiopia, where 45 percent of the country's 72 million people live in poverty, giving birth is a high-risk activity. Many women terminate pregnancies as a method of contraception. When these procedures go wrong, as so many do, Ethiopian women often turn to domestic and foreign health agencies.

Most family planning groups agree that U.S. administration policy banning abortion services by federally funded agencies -- the "global gag rule" enacted by President Bush during his first days in office -- could not have come at a worse time for Ethiopian women.

The ban -- first announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 and rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993 -- prohibits U.S. financing to organizations that perform or counsel abortions or provide post-abortion counseling, even if they do not terminate pregnancies themselves.

"Hospitals tell us they still see many deaths from illegal abortions," said Amare Bedada, executive director of the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia, a 37-year-old domestic health organization. "If we are going to keep women healthy and alive, we have to provide abortion-related advice."

Abortion is legal only in South Africa, which has one of the continent's lowest maternal mortality rates -- 230 deaths per 100,000 live births compared with an average of 830 per 100,000 for all of Africa.

Given the limited services available, many African health organizations depend on the U.S. Agency for International Development -- Washington's principal vehicle for international funding. But the ban has forced a drastic cutback in services, and Ethiopian aid agencies have been hit especially hard.

"We had to let go staff because we could not afford to keep them," said Sister Yeshiemebet Giorgis, clinic project coordinator for the family planning agency, Marie Stopes International. The London-based group lost U.S. funding for sticking to its belief that abortion counseling is part of providing comprehensive health care. "It was a disaster because abortion is such a feature of this country and so many women need help."

Last year, the Family Guidance Association lost $3.9 million in U.S. funding after lobbying the Ethiopian government to legalize abortion and refusing to sign a declaration from Pathfinder International, a USAID partner organization that demanded it halt all abortion-related services. Pathfinder International soon ceased supplying the Family Guidance Association with contraceptives.

"By depriving us of contraceptives, we now face an increase in unwanted pregnancies," Bedada said. "Women are once again using abortion as a routine contraception, not as an emergency measure."

The loss in U.S. financing almost forced the Family Guidance Association to close several clinics. But their 18 clinics, 26 youth centers and 600 community health sites remain open, thanks to the Los Altos-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which stepped in to cover the $3.9 million loss.

Bedada said the Packard Foundation kept scores of clinics open in remote regions where indigent women "use herbs, poisons, wire and other methods to induce bleeding. Abortions are often carried out by local women healers who are not well trained."

Health experts say the surge in abortions is because of not only chronic poverty but starvation conditions. According to the World Food Program, 13.2 million Ethiopians needed food aid in 2003 due to a severe drought.

"It is difficult enough to feed yourself under these conditions, let alone five or six children," said Dr. Daniel Leude, district health administrator in North Shoa, about 75 miles north of Addis Ababa, the capital. "The drought has pushed people to confront family planning."

According to a recent study by the Ethiopian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 45 percent of those seeking abortions are adolescents younger than 18.

"The consequences of an unwanted pregnancy are severe," said Mekikeb Demissie, a youth leader in the village of Duna, 250 miles west of Addis Ababa. "A young girl (who becomes pregnant) will drop out of school. This is a small village, so if a girl is pregnant, everyone will know about it. Often she will throw the child away soon after birth. Or she will try and abort it."

For young women, the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy does not end with the birth of a child.

"A pregnant girl will be thrown out of home and may end up working in a bar as a prostitute," Demissie said. "It is then only a matter of time before she gets the AIDS virus and dies."

Ethiopia has one of the world's highest incidents of HIV, with 8 percent of the population infected. "So an unwanted pregnancy is a death sentence," Demissie said.

Duna -- a village similar to thousands around the country -- has a small health clinic, which serves not only the settlement's 2,000 residents but thousands of peasants from the surrounding countryside. A small, dark room set aside for post-abortion careis furnished with an ancient, cracked leather half-bed with rusted stirrups and an old iron bowl.

"This is where women come for help," said Sara Mekuria, the clinic's nurse. "I get two, maybe more a day. Many more can't get to us in time and die in their villages."

###

Printer Friendly Version E-Mail This Article

 
     
 
 

CommonDreams.org is an Internet-based progressive news and grassroots activism organization, founded in 1997.
We are a nonprofit, progressive, independent and nonpartisan organization.

Home | About Us | Donate | Signup | Archives | Search

To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

Copyrighted 1997-2011