Eugenia de Altura is a female graduate student conducting research on issues of women and gender in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America with the exception of Haiti, and over 60% of the country’s population is of indigenous descent. Eugenia’s postings explore women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive health in Bolivia and in Latin America as a whole.
On June 12, the BBC reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the charitable organization of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is dedicating $1.5 billion dollars “to boosting women and children’s health over the next five years.” Decreasing maternal deaths worldwide is one of the United Nations’ (UN) “Millennium Development Goals,” a series of goals designed to improve the conditions of the world’s poor, particularly women and children. According to the BBC, around 350,000 pregnant and nursing women die each year, and the UN hopes to reduce this number by 75% by the year 2015.
So far, so good, right? It is always heartening to see the world’s wealthiest individuals give big chunks of dough to the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged. However, there’s a catch: none of the $1.5 billion may be used to fund abortion services, a fact that Lancet journal editor Dr. Richard Horton called, “’outrageous.’” As Dr. Horton points out, 1 in 7 maternal deaths worldwide is due to complications from unsafe (ie., usually illegal) abortion, amounting to 50,000 of those 350,000 pregnant and nursing women who die each year. The only explanation the BBC offers for this position is to say that, “the Gates Foundation…supports family planning, but it does not fund abortion or take a position on the issue.”
With abortion-related deaths forming such a significant part of overall maternal deaths, it does seem inexcusable to exclude abortion care simply because it is a hot-button issue. As medical professionals and activists around the world have been trying to stress for the last few decades, abortion is a public health issue, not a “moral” one. Regardless of whether or not it is legal, women will continue to have abortions, and will continue dying because of them if we do not provide safe and quality abortion care.
The recent decision of the Gates Foundation mirrors, in a smaller way, the controversial United States “global gag rule” in force from the mid-1980s to 1990s, and again during the W. Bush administrations. This rule prevented organizations receiving U.S. funding around the world from providing information or services related to abortion care. They could not even mention the existence of abortion. (Fortunately, this law was repealed by President Obama.)
I like that this law was deemed the “global gag rule” because it conjures up such a disturbing image—the entire globe, hundreds of supposedly sovereign nations, choked by a huge, collective, imperialist gag. I mean really, how condescending is it for one of the world’s countries to decide the fate of so many others? To decide who may live—women who do not abort—and who may die? I am sure The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a reputation to protect, and investors to keep happy, but its decision to provide no funding for abortion services will mean that 50,000 women per year may still die from unsafe abortion. Although I do not want to diminish the overall charitable contributions of the Foundation, which are considerable, I do wish that organizations such as these could keep the spotlight on public health, and learn to separate “morality” from quality health care.