It was a rare occurrence on campus — speakers at the front of the room and none of the students in attendance touched their phone.
That was the scene Thursday night when the #Fight4HER campaign came to Ohio State to speak out against the Global Gag Rule instituted by President Donald Trump. The policy bars any foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. global health aid from discussing safe, legal abortion with their patients.
“A policy that is literally going to cost hundreds of thousands of lives directly or indirectly,” Lisa Shannon, a long-time advocate for women’s rights in Africa, said in an interview prior to the event. “It is a death warrant.”
The campaign is run by the Population Action Connection fund and brought three speakers, including Shannon and two Kenyan health experts, who have on-the-ground experience in Africa witnessing the effects of the gag rule. The HER in #Fight4HER stands for health, empowerment and rights in reference to the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate which aims to make the gag rule permanently illegal.
Melvine Ouyo and Amos Simpano work for Family Health Options Kenya as a clinic director and director of clinical services, respectively. They spoke at the event and described FHOK as the organization that everyone in Kenya, including the government, relies on for sexual and reproductive healthcare.
“We are the champion for family planning in Kenya,” Simpano said. “We are the advocate for family planning in Kenya.”
The goal of the campaign, and why Ouyo and Simpano said they decided to come and speak, is to show Americans what the situation is like in developing countries.
“Kenya can’t be America,” Ouyo said.
Ouyo said she decided to work in reproductive health, and ultimately for FHOK, after witnessing a tragic situation involving a young girl while she was training to be a nurse.
“This young girl came in having undergone an unsafe abortion that got complicated,” Ouyo said. “She became septic. It was really painful for a 15-year-old girl to lose her uterus at that young age.”
Simpano also was called to the work through personal experience, namely seeing his female neighbors and his own sister undergo genital mutilation for religious purposes.
“I joined Family Health Options Kenya and I found a really good platform to champion my cause advocating for rights of women, including the right to access family planning services,” he said.
Simpano said through much hard work they have brought services to a wide range of Kenyan communities, in one case having to hurdle religious objections.
It is so extreme, the idea that we literally would cut treatment for HIV funding so that babies are going to be born HIV positive because of this policy. – Lisa Shannon, a long-time advocate for women’s rights in Africa
They did this by meeting with community leaders and coming to the agreement that the Quran does not prohibit family planning. Simpano said it just had to be renamed “child spacing.”
But with the Global Gag Rule instituted by the Trump Administration, that work is under fire, Simpano said, and they simply can’t sign the gag rule, even if it means losing funding.
“It would be throwing away our mandate,” he said.
Shannon said the loss of this funding does more than just affect pregnancies. For example, it cuts funding that allows organizations like FHOK to provide mothers with medicine that can prevent HIV from being passed along to a newborn.
Ouyo said the impact can already be seen on the ground, noting the story of a young girl who went in for a safe abortion and could not be helped. The girl later attempted abortion by her own means and had to be rushed back to the hospital when it went wrong.
“You could have saved me,” she said to the doctor, Ouyo recalled.
The young girl died later that night.
Rather than abortions or birth control they wear really loose clothes so they can hide the pregnancy and they’ll deliver and then murder the newborn. – Lisa Shannon
Simpano said FHOK has given him an incredible platform. It allows him to take part in forums that ultimately led to abortion being legalized in the Kenyan Constitution, but the U.S. government is keeping FHOK from providing these legal services in their own country.
“Being a health professional, or health worker, who works in a facility and a client wants a service form you, it is your obligation as a service provider to serve that client to the best of your knowledge and ability,” Simpano said. “You are not able to do that because someone else has interfered. I think that is also a violation of a health worker’s right to serve that client. It is very traumatic, very frustrating.”
Shannon said that access to family planning and safe abortion affects every part of women’s lives in developing countries, even the ability to just stay alive, and that this gag rule is much harsher than the previous one from George W. Bush’s administration.
“It is stunning. There were exceptions made back then [during the Bush administration] around care for people with HIV,” Shannon said. “It is so extreme, the idea that we literally would cut treatment for HIV funding so that babies are going to be born HIV positive because of this policy.”
Shannon, who has also worked in the Congo and Somalia, said the situation in Somalia, for example, is much worse than just not having access to healthcare. In Somalia, Shannon said having a child outside a marriage carries such a stigma that women must take extreme measures.
“It is considered the duty of the nearest male relative to kill the girl,” Shannon said. “Rather than abortions or birth control they wear really loose clothes so they can hide the pregnancy and they’ll deliver and then murder the newborn.”
Simpano said tremendous progress in Kenya has been made over the last 10 years, with use of modern contraception rising from around 39 percent to 53 percent from 2009 to 2014, and maternal mortality dropping from 488 to 362 in that same period.
Simpano said this progress, for which he appreciates Americans’ support in achieving, is in danger.
“Now these indicators are threatened if we do not sustain the interventions we were implementing,” he said. “It means we’ll go back.”