Reproductive rights under Biden: what will it look like?
Since the Biden/Harris team clinched the US Presidency, feminist advocates and policy makers have begun to discuss the massive reclaiming of women’s rights that must occur to recover from the last four years of Trump-era regressions. To dig deeper into this mandate, leaders from several high profile organizations gathered recently online to make explicit what must happen to begin the recovery of rights for women and girls around the world.
Author and Attorney Jill Filipovic moderated the discussion, which featured Serra Sippel, President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), Anu Kumar, President and CEO of Ipas, and Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center.
Filipovic kicked off the discussion by acknowledging the many ways in which the Trump administration has “viciously attacked reproductive rights” and asked the panelists to discuss some of the biggest harms to women’s rights that need to be undone.
Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center, began by recognizing that the Trump administration has done “everything within their power to undermine human rights, especially protections for marginalized groups.”
Radhakrishnan described two main categories in which this undermining of women’s rights has taken place: through disengagement and erosion. By the US explicitly withdrawing from multilateral organizations like the WHO (World Health Organization) and the UNFPA (United National Fund for Population Activity), the US practiced an unprecedented level of disengagement from meaningful work to protect women’s rights, especially access to abortion. At the same time, the US under Trump began a very active campaign to erode the human rights framework established and upheld by these organizations.
The Trump administration created “a false hierarchy of rights elevating religious liberty over other rights,” said Radhakrishnan, which now needs to be addressed.
Anu Kumar, President and CEO of Ipas, which has been fighting for abortion access globally for 47 years, discussed how the US has lost esteem from other countries in the world due to the past four years of regressions under Trump.
“We need to restore US’s standing on the international stage,” said Kumar. “We have doubled down on an anti-rights and anti-women agenda.” By withdrawing from UNFPA and WHO, as well as bodies like Human Rights Council, the U.S. has taken very significant steps to disengage from the civil society bodies making progress for women and girls.
“We are now keeping company with Poland and Hungary,” said Kumar, countries that are “also moving away from human rights.”
US Must Rejoin Multilateral Spaces including WHO, UNFPA, and Human Rights Council
Kumar stressed the need for the US to get back into the multilateral space where partner countries are working to improve rights for women and girls. She also flagged the issue of ongoing regressive multilateral networks started by Trump, and said these networks are likely to continue beyond his administration and have their own momentum to continue pushing for regressive policies.
“Our allies have left us behind on the international stage,” she said. “We’re no longer sought after for leadership or even partnership” with more progressive world countries.
First things first, said Kumar, the US must repeal the Global Gag Rule, the rule which prevented education, information, and medical services for abortion around the world. But, said Kumar, ” We must go much further. We must deal with the Helms Amendment.”
What Can Biden Do on Day One via Executive Order?
Serra Sippel, President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), spoke about day one actions for the Biden administration. Sippel said the first and most pressing order of business for Biden should be to rejoin WHO immediately, re-engage in the Paris Climate Agreement, and rescind the Global Gag Rule.
Sippel added that Biden should issue a “new Executive Order” that would clarify that “US funds can be used for abortion overseas.” She said the new Presidency should also issue directives to agencies and implementing partners about the policy changes.
To prevent the Global Gag Rule from coming back, said Sippel, Biden must also support the Global HER Act, making the repeal of the Global Gag Rule permanent.
Kumar added that The Helms Amendment needs to be repealed. The Helms Amendment, passed in 1973, restricted US Foreign Assistance to provide abortions in foreign countries, but allowed for exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the woman’s life.
“On January 21, Biden must signal his commitment to making abortion available to women overseas,” said Kumar.
Kumar noted that only 1% of total US budget goes to Foreign Aid, but this funding “impacts the poorest women around the world” with severe limits to their health and reproductive rights.
Akila Radhakrishnan recognized the immense power that the US President has to guide foreign affairs and foreign policy. She is hopeful that the Biden/Harris administration will “signal that feminism is something that matters, that it will be integrated into how they carry out their foreign policy.”
“There’s a range of issues that feminism can help us think about and they’re all interconnected,” said Radhakrishnan. “It’s not just about these one-off commitments to undo the Global Gag Rule,” but a more comprehensive approach to addressing women’s health and empowerment.
Radhakrishnan said that she wants to see the Biden administration prioritize “gender expertise” in making appointments to key posts and position to “ensure that they are able to integrate feminist strategies.”
“Where this begins is in the big picture,” said Radhakrishnan. “It’s easy to get bogged down in individual pieces of policy or legislation , but this requires a fundamental shift.”
Challenges and Opportunities for Reproductive, Health, and Sexual Rights
Radhakrishnan noted that the US remained in a very status quo place for a long time by maintaining the Helms Amendment. “There’s never been a movement to say, when we look at foreign appropriations on an annual basis, what are the opportunities to get rid of these policies that have caused so much harm around the world,” she said.
“What are the frameworks that are missing that can help the US improve its approach both domestically and internationally?” asked Radhakrishnan as a question she hopes the Biden administration will prioritize in terms of women’s rights. She expressed appreciation that the Biden administration has already said it will prioritize ratifying treaties like CEDAW.
“The US is one of only 7 countries that hasn’t ratified CEDAW,” she said. “The US has always been a bad actor in the human rights conversation.”
Radhakrishnan referenced an editorial co-authored by Biden when he was in the Senate with Barbara Boxer in 2007, which made the argument that the US should ratify CEDAW because it wouldn’t require us to change any of our laws.” This document, said Radhakrishnan disregards the problems with human rights in the US and attempts to position the US as superior to other countries and as a country not in need of reforms for women.
“We want to ratify CEDAW, but we want it to help improve the system here in the US,” said Radhakrishnan, suggesting the US needs to “step away from regressive viewpoints, especially that CEDAW is abortion neutral. CEDAW is not abortion neutral.”
“We cannot go back to the arrogance with which the US government has consistently approached its place” in the multilateral community, said Radhakrishnan. “There’s a lot that the US can learn from women’s movements around the world, from other countries that have gone so much further.”
Concern that Faith-Based Groups Are Getting Prioritized by Biden
Serra Sippel rejoined the conversation to add that the US needs policies in place that will be pro-active in “removing policies that allow for a support discrimination against LGBTQ people.”
“Will the Biden administration do that?” Sippel asked, noting concerns that some faith-based groups are getting prioritized in this conversation.
Sippel also spoke clearly about the overall shift in strategy needed from the Biden administration, saying they need to end colonialist policies and practices that thwart progress for developing nations.
Sippel suggested we need to push back on the false division created between domestic and foreign policy. The groundwork for reconceptualizing a more consistently aligned policy for reproductive and health rights has already taken place, she said, with 90 organizations already coming together and creating a blueprint to protect and advance reproductive and health rights. “We want the administration to use that blueprint,” she said.
The strategies covered in the blueprint ensure that reproductive health programs are inclusive of the disabled, LGBTQ, sex workers, HIV, unmarried people, and other marginalized groups. “Advocates also need to hold themselves accountable to being inclusive,” she added.
Final Words on Repro Health Agenda for Biden
Kumar urged Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment and pass the HER Act, so that the Global Gag Rule can no longer be a potential threat. She also encouraged the Biden administration to “negotiate, to talk with, and be part of international consortia and donor-led activities.”
“The Trump administration has been a pariah from the donors supporting reproductive rights,” said Kumar. “This is important and an opportunity to leverage huge amount of resources and good will and in the global community.”
“Return to the fold with multilateral organizations,” she said. “To withdraw from WHO when we need a vaccine, seemed incredibly foolish. The opportunity to go back to WHO […] is huge for Americans.”
Akila Radhakrishnan called for a complete shift in mindset for the US from contradictory and harmful reproductive and health policies for women, to policies with domestic and foreign policy coherence that protect abortion and provide comprehensive health services.
“I think sometimes there’s a lack of imagination in the US,” said Radhakrishnan, and suggested that Americans need to “look outside ourselves to see what we can learn. Countries like Rwanda that have 60% participation of women in government.” She stressed that cultural shifts should be more of a two-way street between the US and other countries, with the US absorbing and incorporating good ideas that come from abroad.
Sippel added that a proposal exists for Feminist Foreign Policy that is endorsed by over 80 organizations. She also implored the new President to establish “a cabinet that reflects America” and a feminist foreign policy that “truly listens and engages with people impacted by US foreign policy.”