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The Trump administration's war on abortion rights is worse than you think

The Trump administration's war on abortion rights is worse than you think
© Greg Nash

The Trump administration has been executing a coordinated attack on what it sees as a critical public health issue. Unfortunately, the offensive is not targeting the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected over six million people and claimed almost 200,000 lives in the US. Instead, the campaign has its sights set on women’s sexual health and reproductive rights, especially abortion. With the recent death of Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgPence seeks to lift GOP in battle for Senate 'Packing' federal courts is already a serious problem McConnell and Schumer's relationship shredded after court brawl MORE threatening the fate of Roe v. Wade, the security of abortion rights has never been more precarious.

The administration’s brazen anti-abortion agenda includes not only well-publicized executive actions such as the expansions of the global and domestic gag rules, “conscience” exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, and the packing of courts with anti-abortion judges.

There are lesser-known, collateral measures implicating virtually every facet of a government that demonstrate the long reach and influence of the anti-abortion movement. Already deeply-rooted within the Trump administration’s domestic and foreign policy, the crusade to restrict women’s healthcare by eliminating abortion is intensifying, particularly at the Departments of State, Health and Human Services, and Treasury.

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The State Department’s establishment of a commission last year to provide “fresh thinking” on human rights might not seem like a direct threat to women’s reproductive rights. Yet the recent report issued by the “Commission on Unalienable Rights” does just that by recognizing only “God-given” or “natural” rights derived from centuries-old founding documents of the US.

This new focus provides intellectual cover for excluding rights long-recognized by US law and the international human rights framework, such as sexual health and reproductive rights, reframed as “controversies” not rights in the report.

Over the last three years, the Trump administration has used freedom of religion and “natural law” precepts to attack sexual health and reproductive rights, especially abortion, and curtail the rights of LGBTQ people. The Global Justice Center and other organizations have filed a legal challenge to the commission and the use of its report, which threatens to provide a road map for further discrimination.

The impact of the report was immediately felt on August 19 when the State Department’s Agency for International Development (USAID) released a revised draft Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy that limits the scope and breadth of its programs by describing women’s rights as “unalienable” and eliminating all references to sexual and reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Focusing instead on family planning by “spouses” and with an almost three-fold increase in references to “family,” the new policy adopts outdated language such as “fertility awareness” and “early sexual debut” instead of providing for evidence-based sexual and reproductive healthcare services and comprehensive sexual education.

Over at the Department of Health and Human Services, the report of the Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board, established by Secretary Azar as an added layer of scrutiny for government-funded scientific research using human fetal tissue, represents another sobering indication of the long arm of abortion opponents within the Trump administration. Convened for the first time in July without any attempt to provide a balanced membership as required by federal law, the 15 member board is tasked with reviewing and approving proposals that include the use of human fetal tissue, which is donated from terminated pregnancies.

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Chaired by Paige Comstock Cunningham, a vocal anti-abortion activist and former president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, the board has, not surprisingly, rejected 13 out of 14 proposals. This follows the Trump administration’s decision last year to end scientific research at the National Institutes of Health that relies on human fetal tissue and to terminate outside research contracts using human fetal tissue to protect “the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.” This politicization of scientific research by anti-abortion forces will curtail the medical community’s ability to develop vaccines to treat COVID-19 and interfere with progress to treat conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and congenital defects.

And there is more to come. On August 13, Senator Tom Lankford and other, mostly male, Republican members of Congress sent a letter to USAID calling for the defunding of the UN Secretary-General and other UN agencies. The letter alleges they promote abortion in violation of the Siljander Amendment, which forbids using US funds to lobby for or against abortion.

The letter misunderstands lobbying, which requires actions to be on behalf of a client and exempts public officials and public comments. But if it is successful, it will have deep and devastating consequences for women around the world. The proposed cuts would impact critical UN agencies like the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women, and the UN Secretariat. Along with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization and defunding of the Organization of the American States and UN Population Fund, this move would eviscerate organizations that provide crucial support for women’s health and rights worldwide.

The anti-abortion crusade has also reached the Department of the Treasury, which is being requested to issue new regulations to exclude abortion (except when the life of the mother is physically endangered) from the definition of medical care in the tax code, thus eliminating it from the list of eligible deductible healthcare expenses.

The congressional request also suggests that the IRS should ultimately refuse to treat health care premiums for insurance covering abortions as legitimate medical care deductions. Issuing these new regulations would not only impact individual tax situations. Still, it would dangerously redefine abortion as outside the scope of legitimate medical care, leading to far-reaching consequences for women’s ability to access reproductive healthcare.

The through-line for these disparate policy actions across the Trump administration is the increased power, urgency, and reach of the war on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. The success of these policies not only threatens decades of progress on women’s reproductive freedom and gender equality worldwide but also inflicts collateral damage, such as by curtailing scientific research and medical tax deductions. This acceleration of a harmful agenda against women’s reproductive health rights will impact even those who may not see themselves as directly affected by the campaign against abortion. It will prove costly not only for women but for everyone. 

Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and Special Counsel at the Global Justice Center, an international human rights organization focused on gender equality. Onello is a graduate of Harvard Law School and The Johns Hopkins University.