By Suzanne Petroni

We’re in the waning days of the Bush administration and the ideologues are working furiously to get in their last licks. Women, including the most underprivileged and poor in the world, are their target yet again.

A third of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. The vast majority are women and children. Many are forced into marriage at 10 or 12 years of age. Many have six to 10 children, because they have no access to education or services, and no authority to decide on sexual matters in their marriages. As a result, more than 500,000 women die each year just because they get pregnant: they gave birth too young, too old, too often, or they live too far away from any trained health care provider. And increasingly, they are becoming infected with HIV/AIDS.

Controlling one’s own reproductive decisions is important for all women, but especially for women in poor families. Birth control is a critical component in ensuring that rates of unwanted pregnancy and abortion continue to drop, and that women and their children are able to live healthy lives.

But even as the president and his colleagues prepare to pack up and leave Washington, they’ve continued to find more opportunities to take away these basic women’s rights.

Just recently, the United States Agency for International Development discontinued the provision of contraceptives to Marie Stopes International (MSI), one of the world’s leading family planning organizations. According to MSI, the decision will “seriously disrupt” family planning programs in at least six African countries – Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe - including one where the organization delivers 25 percent of all family planning services nationally. Women in these countries will be left with few options other than abortion, the majority of which will be unsafe and could very well result in their death or disability.

This is on top of the fact that for the past seven years, President Bush has blocked the congressionally approved U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA works in 140 countries to provide poor women with family planning, maternal and child health, and HIV prevention assistance. This year alone, the U.S. contribution could have helped to prevent up to 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 unsafe abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, over 77,000 infant and child deaths, and prevented countless women and men from contracting HIV/AIDS.

And of course in one of his first acts as president, Bush restored the Global Gag Rule, severely restricting groups that work in the developing world from providing much-needed family planning assistance. The move forced the closure of health clinics throughout Asia and Africa -- often the only providers of health care in their communities -- leaving millions in need.

But Bush’s apathy towards women isn’t just for those overseas.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed regulations that would deprive women of the right to make their own informed health care decisions. These regulations would allow doctors, nurses and other health care personnel to refuse to provide services that might offend their conscience. This includes not only the provision of abortion services, from which providers are already exempt under federal law, but could include contraception as well.

While we have made laudable progress in funding the fight against HIV/AIDS abroad, this progress has not been matched at home, where AIDS is now the number one killer of black women between the ages of 25 and 34. It’s not helpful that the federal government forces schools to teach programs that preach abstinence-only-until-marriage and bans discussing condoms, except to exaggerate their failure rates. Over 20 states, including Virginia, have now rejected federal abstinence-only programs, which have proven not only a complete waste of taxpayer funds, but have likely also caused harm to the students who are taught inaccurate information.

In these last few weeks of election season, Virginians should ask candidates for federal office where they stand regarding the health and welfare of vulnerable women.

Do they support the Bush policies of denying women access to contraception and providing young people with dangerous abstinence-only-until-marriage education? Or would they give women and youth the opportunity to live healthy lives and to be free to make their own educated decisions regarding their health?

The women of the world deserve better than what the Bush administration has provided, and the American people deserve wiser, more generous policies in our name.
Petroni worked on health and women's issues at the U.S. Department of State from 1997 until 2001. She lives in Northern Virginia and manages a program at a foundation in Washington, DC, supporting comprehensive health programs for women and youth in the developing world.

Copyright (C) 2008 by the Virginia Forum. 10/08