Religious Freedom is an integral part of human dignity. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it is also core to U.S. foreign policy. However, it seems Pompeo needs more knowledge to moderate the negative influences of his personal religious beliefs, and those of other Trump cabinet members, on his partaking of autocratic tendencies and scapegoating.
In a press statement released on October 27, 2020, Pompeo points out that North Korea, Iran and China are the three “most egregious freedom abusers”. He declares China to be the worst, because it seeks to eradicate all forms of faith and belief that don’t align with its communist doctrine.
Religious freedom means not only the freedom to worship but also that people shouldn’t have to go against their core beliefs and values in order to conform to culture or government. So why is the U.S. exporting censorship on the beliefs and values of others by imposing its (or rather the top echelons of the Trump administration’s) own America First doctrine?
Making a bad policy worse by weaponizing it
The Trump administration’s ideologically-driven, expanded Global Gag Rule (GGR) – renamed Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy , which was released in September 2019 while Rex Tillerson was still Secretary of State and is strongly touted by Mike Pompeo, who replaced Tillerson– is, in effect, a state-led effort to eradicate all use of non-U.S. government (i.e. private) funding for services and advocacy that don’t align with the Trump/Pence/Pompeo doctrine on family planning and health. It translates into the weaponization of U.S. foreign assistance to systematically target global sexual and reproductive health and rights programs and trample free speech and religious freedom.
The Global Gag Rule is the name used to refer to the Mexico City Policy that went was first implemented by President Reagan in 1984. It is a US government policy that requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based outside of the US and that receive US global health assistance or are funded by a non-US organization to certify that they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning”. As of Jan. 23, 2017, it also applies to most other U.S. global health assistance – estimated at $9.5 billion - which includes funding for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and maternal and child health.
In other words, Trump’s expanded gag rule blocks American NGOs and their partners from using any kind of funding, American or not, to provide health services for family planning or health assistance that includes any type of abortion-related services, information, counseling, referrals, or advocacy, even if the country in question has legally permissible abortion. This, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, affects 37 of the 64 countries that the U.S. provides bilateral assistance to for health and an estimated 880 million women.
In Africa, for example, 75% of U.S. annual aid ($5.3bn in 2019) seeks to address health challenges.
Although the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency of the U.S. State Department, has declined to say how much money the United States now provides specifically for global family planning programs, the $638 million in 2015 under the Obama presidency gives an idea.
The negative impact on funding for health has already disrupted collaboration and health promotion activities, by creating divisions between NGOs, and it has strengthened opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It has also led to curtailment of community health volunteers referring women for comprehensive integrated sexual and reproductive, health facilities being closed, frequent contraceptive stockouts, staff layoffs and salary cuts.
The misuse of American power to cripple the rights of others
Trump’s expanded gag rule is an example of how U.S. foreign policy is being misused as a weapon to pursue a misguided, discriminating and intolerant America First policy. By reducing the range and capacity of services, the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy cripples the lives of others, particularly women. It severely disables family planning programs and impedes women’s access to abortion services that in their country are legal.
The reduction in women’s access to high-quality contraceptive services increases the risk of unintended/unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, which are a major cause of maternal morbidity and mortality, while the elimination of access to abortion services that in their countries are legal threatens their health and life in cases of rape, incest or complications that put the pregnant woman’s life in danger. All in the name of the religious beliefs and values of the U.S. administration’s ruling elite.
This violates the very premise of the International Religious Freedom Act enacted by the United States in 1998, which, quoting from Pompeo’s press statement, affirmed America’s “commitment to promote and defend the fundamental right to religious freedom for all people everywhere”. But, at its core, the GGR and its expansion is basically unethical, as it directs providers to withhold information about a patient’s reproductive health options, and is an indirect way of undermining democratic values.
By muzzling health care professionals in developing countries that have a sovereign right to enact their own abortion rights and by stigmatizing women’s legal reproductive health needs for abortion services, the Trump administration is handcuffing organizations and advocates that would otherwise use their own funds to defend and uphold the host country’s own core beliefs and values about abortion as a woman’s right to health and life.
Furthermore, reaffirming a commitment to religious freedom while expanding the gag rule violates the fundamental principles of medical ethics and codes, which contain a set of core values requiring health professionals to act in the best interest of the patient and her welfare.
Hypocrisy breeds freedom abuses
The Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy is the expression of an extremist, religious intolerance driven by an ideologically-motivated agenda that is being arrogantly imposed by a small coterie of American male zealots who use their hold on American power to impose on others their particular conception of when life begins, because they pompously believe it is their God-given right to decide on women’s health and bodies.
When releasing press statements, Pompeo would do better to practice what he preaches, instead of predicating inherently personal religious beliefs to intervene in the procreative life of others. The ultimate irony is that, contrary to his statement’s conclusion – that “every person, everywhere, has the right to believe or not believe” and “speak one’s beliefs” - the gag rule he messianically champions is the very expression of religious intolerance for and discrimination against the values and beliefs of others. It contributes to the loss of life by denying access to family planning and life-saving choices, even if it entails abortion. Perhaps the U.S. should be fourth on the list of egregious freedom abusers.