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How the global gag rule undermines Ivanka Trump’s plan to empower women

A new White House initiative aims to economically uplift women in developing countries — but gender equality advocates see a big flaw.

While seated at his desk in the Oval Office, President Trump holds up a memorandum launching the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. His daughter Ivanka and other women stand behind him.
President Trump signed a memorandum launching the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ivanka Trump has her next project.

The president’s daughter and senior adviser is heading the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, which seeks to economically empower women in foreign countries. The project is launching with funding from the US Agency for International Development and will eventually give up to $300 million to 10 US government agencies to help a projected 50 million women around the world become economically independent by 2025.

“American women demonstrate every day that when women are free to thrive and prosper, they create jobs, strengthen our communities, and bring greater peace and prosperity to our nation and all over the world,” President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office two weeks ago when he signed a memorandum establishing the project and dedicating an initial $50 million.

But the biggest barrier to the initiative’s success might be another Trump administration policy: the global gag rule, a federal directive that prevents organizations abroad from receiving money from the US government if they discuss, let alone perform, abortions. Trump, as has every other Republican president since Reagan, reimposed the gag rule when he took office. He also broadened it to cover nearly all health care funding, rather than just family planning funding.

Gender equality advocates are skeptical Trump’s initiative can be as effective as the White House says it will be if health is left out of the conversation, according to an analysis of the initiative by the Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality.

“We noticed immediately and it’s stayed consistent, that piece of the conversation is absent and glaringly so,” said Teresa Casale, a policy advocate at the International Center for Research on Women, a member of the coalition.

A recent report from Casale’s organization found that, across 97 countries, each additional child reduces a woman’s labor force participation by 5 to 10 percentage points. Unmet needs for contraception increase the rate of informal work, which actually endangers women’s working rights and makes them more vulnerable to unemployment if they become pregnant.

The initiative wants to eliminate “barriers” to women’s participation in the economy

Trump’s initiative consists of three pillars, according to an op-ed Ivanka Trump wrote for the Wall Street Journal. The first pillar focuses on workforce development and the second on promoting female entrepreneurs. The third pillar is dedicated to “eliminating the legal, regulatory and cultural barriers that prevent women from participating in their local economies.”

Ten US government agencies, including the State Department and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, will receive money to develop programs meant to accomplish these goals.

Ivanka Trump claims the initiative will increase global economic output by $12 trillion by 2025.

The Coalition for Women’s Empowerment and Equality, founded after Ivanka Trump said at the beginning of her father’s term that she wanted to support women globally, analyzed the plan and praised the idea of the third pillar. It is meant to address environmental factors that often limit women’s economic decision-making, such as obtaining credit, property ownership, inheritance law, and unpaid care work. On the plan’s website, the analysis also praised the inclusion of gender-based violence as a factor limiting women, although Trump’s Oval Office memorandum failed to mention this barrier.

The inclusion of compounding environmental factors was “unprecedented” and demonstrated that the plan’s drafters listened to expert advice, said Lyric Thompson, director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. She added that the third pillar of Trump’s plan “does a lot of work to recognize the economic rights issues the US government has not been a leader on in any administration.”

But the third pillar is also where some advocates for gender equality get stuck. If Ivanka Trump wants to “eliminate legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers” to economic participation, she’ll also have to address commonly unmet needs for contraception, said Casale, the ICRW policy advocate.

And under the global gag rule — which the Trump administration not only reimposed but expanded — organizations addressing that issue have their hands tied.

“Women’s health is integral to her economic participation,” Thompson said. “If that ability is greatly constrained by the imposition of the global gag rule, then necessarily there are less women who are positioned to economically thrive.”

Casale agreed: “Any organization that receives money on the ground can’t talk about abortion and still receive funding,” she said. “Those two policies are in contrast and in conflict with one another.”

The global gag rule bars groups getting US funding from talking about abortion

The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, originated with Ronald Reagan, who established it in 1984. Traditionally, it has barred any organization that performs abortions or discusses abortion as a family planning option from getting US foreign aid meant to fund family planning and contraception.

Since Reagan, Democratic presidents have repealed the policy, while Republican presidents have reimposed it. President Trump went further: His administration expanded the gag rule to cover all health care funding, not just family planning.

Some members of Congress are trying to fight the global gag rule. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) introduced the Global HER Act the same week Ivanka’s plan was announced. The act would allow groups receiving US aid to provide abortions, as long as they don’t pay for them with US aid money. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) eventually co-sponsored Shaheen’s Senate bill, but support largely fell along partisan lines and it never came up for a vote.

“Fundamentally it’s a speech restriction,” said Beirne Roose-Snyder, director of public policy at the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). “It takes an entire set of highly effective organizations away from the ability to receive foreign assistance. ... We’re looking at a lot of new impacts, but what we know is that it increases abortion.”

According to a new book looking at the gag rule in the George W. Bush administration, Roose-Snyder said, the odds ratio of a woman in sub-Saharan Africa getting an abortion doubled after the gag rule was reimposed. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the odds tripled. This is often because, under the gag rule, women are not given access to contraception or prenatal care.

As government agencies working on Ivanka Trump’s plan partner with local organizations on the ground, they will basically be forcing agencies to comply with the gag rule or risk millions of women not receiving economic support.

For example, Mozambique’s government recently decriminalized abortion, but organizations in that country are forced to choose whether they will work with their own government or risk losing American aid.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.

In her op-ed, Ivanka writes the White House plan should not be considered a “women’s issue,” because it benefits whole communities — but this emphasis hints at missing language around health. And for gender equality advocates, the suggestion that Ivanka Trump’s initiative might be called “feminist” is impetus for more work going forward.

“It’s not feminist foreign policy because that term refers to an approach to a broader body of work that is comprehensive of all rights and encompasses all auspices of US foreign policy: aid, trade, diplomacy, and defense,” Thompson said. “This is a development program that is geared towards women.”