By Emma Batha
Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — President Joe Biden's decision to scrap a "deadly" Trump-era policy banning funding for aid groups that discuss abortion could unleash billions in dollars for life-saving services in developing countries, women's rights groups said on Thursday.
"It's very, very good news. It sends a strong message that reproductive rights are human rights," said Evelyne Opondo, Africa director at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"I'm hoping this will allow many clinics to reopen across Africa and save thousands of women's lives," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Almost $9 billion in US foreign aid is at stake under the "Mexico City Policy," also known as the "global gag rule," which prevents foreign groups providing abortion services or counseling from receiving US funding.
Those that have rejected the ban have lost funding, forcing them to shut reproductive health clinics and other services including HIV care.
Opondo said the closures had hit women in rural areas particularly hard.
"Women have died because they were not able to access facilities. They've died due to pregnancy and childbirth complications, and complications from unsafe abortions as well."
Organizations said the policy had also increased stigma around abortion and emboldened anti-abortion groups globally.
"Unfortunately, this will not change overnight. [We] will have to do a lot of work in the communities to undo this harm," said Tendai Mafuma, a researcher with Johannesburg health rights center Section27.
Launched in the Reagan era, the policy has been imposed by Republican presidents and revoked by Democratic presidents.
However, Trump greatly expanded the ban to cover funding for all global health assistance.
Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to Biden, told the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday that the president would revoke the rule in the coming days as part of the new administration's "commitment to protect women's health and advance gender equality."
MSI Reproductive Choices, a global provider of contraception, abortion, and post-abortion care previously called Marie Stopes International, said the rule had cost it $30 million a year in funding.
This would have allowed it to prevent an estimated 6 million unintended pregnancies, 1.8 million unsafe abortions, and 20,000 maternal deaths during the four years of Trump's presidency, MSI said.
MSI Chief Executive Simon Cooke called the policy deadly, adding that restricting abortion access did not stop women having them, but just made them less safe.
"It's done untold damage," he said. "This has forced women to be more stigmatized and seek out services which put them at risk, and in some of the worst cases led to their deaths."
He said Biden's decision to lift the ban would "help restore the US as a world leader in championing gender equality and reproductive health care."
But Cooke said it could take a year before groups like MSI could access funding, partly because of the time needed to bid for new contracts and grants.
The International Women's Health Coalition, which promotes reproductive health rights, said the ban had caused "devastating long-term consequences," including clinic closures, redundancies, and the loss of organization's relationships with communities.
"Those things are not going to recover overnight," said Nina Besser Doorley, IWHC program officer for US foreign policy.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; additional reporting Kim Harrisberg in Johannesburg. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)