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Trump family planning policy may increase population, hurt women and environment

  • In January, U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated the global gag rule, first introduced under Ronald Reagan. It requires foreign NGOs receiving U.S. global family planning assistance to certify that they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” with non-U.S. funds.
  • According to Marie Stopes International (MSI), the gag rule could result in a minimum of 2.2 million abortions from 2017-2020, with 21,700 women dying as a result. And that only accounts for services lost from MSI.
  • Research shows that the gag rule is also likely to increase population growth in the developing world by reducing the ability of organizations to provide family planning services. This could endanger the environment in a variety of ways. For example, population growth puts more pressure on forests and wildlife.
  • A lack of family planning can lead to large families, with women spending more of their time on childrearing, largely leaving them out of any active role in community sustainability and conservation projects, as well as education programs that train them in sustainable livelihoods.
The Katoyo Women’s Group in the Democratic Republic of Congo leads a procession through their village in proud celebration of International Women’s Day, 2017. The empowerment of women is good for communities and the environment, say researchers and activists. Photo courtesy of Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center

In January, President Donald Trump re-instated the global gag rule with sweeping consequences for women’s health and the environment globally.

President Ronald Reagan first introduced the rule — also known as the Mexico City Policy — in 1984. It requires foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving U.S. global family planning assistance to certify they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” with non-U.S. funds. The rule has been rescinded and re-instated multiple times, and has been an active policy for 17 of the past 32 years.

According to Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Washington D.C., the Trump administration policy — which she says is “rolling out as we speak,” — has created confusion on the ground and funding cuts for many organizations. Two of the world’s largest family planning organizations, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and Marie Stopes International (MSI), will be stripped of U.S. funds because they offer abortions in countries where it is legal to do so.

A memo released by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute asserts that the gag rule increases unwanted pregnancies and back street abortions. And according to Marie Stopes International, the gag rule could result in 2.2 million abortions from 2017-2020, with 21,700 women dying as a result. And that only accounts for services lost from MSI — the effects of the policy could have far reaching consequences around the world.

Aside from the potentially devastating consequences to women’s health and wellbeing, evidence also suggests that the global gag rule is bad news for the environment.

Information technology training with women in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Bijoux Lolenge Mpako (far left) is a graduate of the Djolu Technical College and now serves as logistician and program manager for the reserve. While data is scant, logic suggests that less time spent on child rearing means more time for education. Photo courtesy of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative

The population connection

Robert Engelman, senior fellow at the World Watch Institute, led a 2016 meta-study that examined findings from 939 scientific papers linking family planning and sustainability that appeared in peer-reviewed journals between 2005-2016. According to Engelman’s analysis, much of the literature demonstrated or asserted a connection between human population and environmental risk or degradation. And according to his report, population growth was often found to be more influential as a factor than climate change in current or projected environmental problems.

“Logic and research suggest that growing populations tend to contribute to various environmental stresses,” researcher Vicky Markham asserts in an essay found within the 2016 report. “So, by extension, if wider use of family planning slows population growth, it should generally produce some benefits in slowing the pace of human-caused environmental change.”

Engelman says the global gag rule is likely to increase population growth by reducing the ability of many organizations to provide family planning services. Based on the body of evidence, he says, this seems likely to put more pressure on the environment.

History supports the idea that the global gag rule cuts off access to family planning for women around the world. According to the Human Rights Watch website, previous versions of the rule caused organizations around the planet to cut staff and services, and sometimes shut clinics. The NGOs that complied with the restrictions imposed by the rule were prevented from relaying full and accurate information to their patients, the site says.

Mothers awaiting family planning services in Malawi. The loss of those services under the Trump gag rule could be devastating to communities around the world. Photo by Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development, Wikimedia Commons

Gender equality and conservation

It’s not just the uptick in population that matters. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that empowered women, less encumbered by full time childrearing duties, are key to environmental conservation. For example, in studies of forestry groups in Nepal and India, researchers found that when more women were involved in forest restoration, there is more monitoring and better rule enforcement, so forest areas regenerate faster.

Craig Leisher (et al.) recently mapped all of the published literature linking gender to forest and fisheries management,” Kame Westerman of the NGO Conservation International said in a recent Mongabay interview. “While there is a dearth of published literature looking at this issue (quite a problem in its own right!), the researchers did highlight a number of studies demonstrating an increase in conservation outcomes (mostly forest cover) when decision-making bodies are of mixed gender.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, four NGOs, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, the Jane Goodall Institute and Coopera all integrated women into their great ape conservation programs, with excellent outcomes — women played key roles as caregivers, in tree planting and habitat restoration.

In India, empowered women have proven themselves decisive in saving the Greater Adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius). Researcher and conservationist Purnima Barman recruited the “Hargila Army,” a self-help group of 70 women, mostly recruited from families that own stork nest trees, and all with expert weaving skills. Assam is famous for its gamocha towels and other fine textiles, woven from cotton or silk and decorated with traditional motifs, such as flowers — now those goods are being emblazoned with Greater Adjutant storks, and those fabrics are becoming awareness building tools for the conservation effort around the globe. But all of these efforts are contingent on smaller families — where less time spent on childrearing means more time for conservation.

Together with the Jatukik Providence Foundation, Bonobo Conservation Initiative and Vie Sauvage women in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, DRC, were provided with training in soap making. Expanding and diversifying community livelihoods means less need to rely on wildlife trafficking or illegal logging for money. Photo courtesy of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative

With smaller families, women also have more time available for education, which can result in enhanced participation in a community’s environmental activities and in developing new, sustainable livelihoods. Another finding by researchers: educated women tend to have smaller families, reducing stress on the environment.

Engelman’s 2016 study summarizes these crucial relationships between family planning, population and the environment by quoting a 1992 joint statement made by 58 national academies of science from around the globe:

Unlike many other steps that could be taken to reduce the rate of environmental changes, reductions in rates of population growth can be accomplished through voluntary measures. Surveys in the developing world repeatedly reveal large amounts of unwanted childbearing. By providing people with the means to control their own fertility, family planning programs have major possibilities to reduce rates of population growth and hence to arrest environmental degradation.

Conversely, when women lose their ability to make health and family planning decisions for themselves — when rapidly growing families require an almost exclusive focus on childrearing — then women are forced into more submissive roles with little time for community participation or decision making. They become less likely to engage civically, politically and environmentally.

According to the 2016 meta-study, several scientific papers indicated that greater gender equality and participation of women in governance and civil society can lead to positive environmental outcomes: “In the first step, family planning empowers women. In the second, women apply this empowerment to positive environmental outcomes.”

In addition, an essay by Engelman suggests that women tend to have more concern about environmental problems than men do, and that in certain circumstances women are more likely to act on this concern.

“If family planning opens up opportunities for women to participate more actively in their communities, in government, and in civil society, one might expect a greater demand — and maybe more activity — from them for policies and actions that protect the environment,” writes Engelman. “More research and harder evidence is needed for anything like certainty. What we have found nonetheless supports the benefit of family planning for environmental sustainability, based simply on what happens when women ‘stand on their own two feet and ring their own bells.’”

So what happens when women lose this empowerment, when the gag rule results in the loss of family planning services?

“You can certainly logically draw the conclusion that it’s not helping the situation,” says Engelman.

Woman with a baby on her back in Laos. Photo courtesy of Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay. With only so many hours in the day, women who have many babies are more likely to be engaged in childrearing than they are to be involved in conservation programs. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Broader health consequences

According to a 2006 report from Engender Health, Kenya’s leading reproductive health providers suffered serious budget cuts as a result of the Bush-era global gag rule, which caused eight clinic closures and staff layoffs across the country. The report also states that at least 9,000 people — primarily women and children — were left with little or no access to health care.

Impacts are likely to be worse under the Trump version of the rule, which is more far reaching than ever. Trump’s gag rule has been expanded to include other global health assistance programs that support initiatives for HIV, maternal and child health — this is potentially catastrophic for millions of people as it could weaken important health systems that have been built up over decades in the developing world, says Sippel.

Further, this gag order will be implemented in a world that is seeing new global health threats, such as the Zika virus — the spread and prevalence of which has been linked to climate change and knows no borders, according to Sippel. With the increase of global health crises linked to climate change, “we need health systems around the world at their strongest,” she says. But the gag order weakens health systems, likely meaning more Zika, more HIV and other disease, leading to weaker communities and families — societal structures that need to be strong to implement local conservation initiatives.

As health services — including family planning — are denied, the resulting population pressure is likely to contribute to an acceleration in environmental problems, ranging from climate change, to illegal logging, deforestation and wildlife trafficking, as expanding families, hit by disease, seek to make money to afford expensive healthcare and to feed expanding families.

Old woman with children in Laos. Large families have long provided a form of old age insurance in rural communities. But as those communities become more dependent on a modern cash economy, large families can become a drain on family finances. It’s theorized that the need to provide food and money for large families can in turn lead to pressure on the environment, including conversion of forests to croplands, overhunting, trafficking and logging. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

The bottom line

Evidence suggests that cutting health and family planning services via the global gag rule could have potentially devastating effects for the environment. However, there is little in-depth data to quantify those impacts.

“Certainly there is abundant evidence that when women and men have access to family planning, fertility rates fall and children are born later,” Engelman says. “That, according to the best evidence, is better for the environment. If you care about the environment, the last thing you’d want to do is restrict family planning for men and women.”

Sippel, while also concerned about conservation, stresses the crucial importance of the health and wellbeing of women across the world, which is at stake.

“The global gag rule is going to throw us backward and throw decades of progress out the window,” she says. “We fully expect that President Trump’s gag rule will cost women their lives and we can’t keep playing politics with women’s lives.”

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African women having a discussion about progress within their community. Women freed from the obligation of caring for overly large families have more time to focus on social, economic and environmental programs that improve their communities. Photo courtesy of Mailabari, Wikimedia Commons.
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