Nairobi — The decision by United States President Barack Obama to overturn the Bush administration's ban on funding assistance programs which provide abortions or abortion counselling - which caused widespread controversy among HIV/Aids campaigners - has prompted widespread comment across Africa.
Obama issued an executive order on January 23 which reversed the ban. It is formally known as the Mexico City Policy, but more commonly referred to as the "global gag rule." It was first introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. President Bill Clinton overturned it, and George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001.
Controversy over the gag rule is rooted in debate over the usefulness of abstinence education programs and women's health worldwide. The Bush administration promoted the "ABC" (Abstinence, Be faithful, always use a Condom) dogma in its international aid projects.
Activists in the United States and across Africa have spoken out against the policy, claiming that when sexual partners fail to follow it and women become pregnant, they resort to seeking unsafe abortions. In 2004, several clinics in Kenya which provided essential health services were shut down due to lack of U.S. funding after the gag rule was reinstated.
But abstinence dogma has proved successful elsewhere. In Uganda, where First Lady Janet Museveni has taken on abstinence education as a pet project, the HIV infection rate has decreased significantly. Mrs. Museveni, who, like George W. Bush, is an evangelical Christian, was so convinced of the efficacy of abstinence promotion that she flew to Washington to lobby Republicans to stop Democrats from blocking funding for programs promoting abstinence.
The following is a roundup of reactions from across the continent. Feel free to add your voice to the debate by commenting on this blog entry.
"It's a welcome move," said Dr Anthony Mbonye, the assistant commissioner of reproductive health in the Ministry Of Health. "The policy was unpopular and inconveniencing. When the US Agency for International Development (USAID) banned us from giving their contraceptives to Marie Stopes, we had to go to the National Medical Stores to separate their contraceptives. It was cumbersome, time wasting and unfortunate," he adds. New Vision, 1 Feb 2009
"Country Director for Ipas-Nigeria, Dr. Ejike Oji, said the decision is a major victory for women across the globe, as it opens a door that has been closed for a very long time." Daily Independent, 26 Jan 2009
Not everyone is as thrilled. In a multi-part column in ThisDay, one of Nigeria's largest dailies, Sonnie Ekwowusi writes:
"American foreign policy in the next four years will tilt in favour of aggressive population control, forced contraceptive use, sterilization of women and abortion. Already in response to President Obama's first presidential act on January 23, Foreign Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, has written to assure African women that henceforth they would get the full backing of the White House in exercising their full reproductive rights which include killing their unborn babies and using their bodies for sexual gratification as eugenicist Sanger taught." This Day, 3 Feb 2009
Norman Tjombe, director of the Legal Assistance Centre welcomed the reversal of the rule, saying it placed "a ridiculous limit on the kind of information that needs to be distributed to women and their families, and thus seriously undermined efforts to promote safe and efficacious family-planning programmes." The Namibian, 4 Feb 2009
The Association for Family Welfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo wrote in a (French language) release that "the gag rule has had a catastrophic impact on the scope and effectiveness of service delivery of family planning, sexual health and contraception in the world, especially in Africa where only 18 percent of women have access to modern means of contraception, compared to 56 percent in the rest of the developing world." Le Potentiel, 4 Feb 2009