Well, it could have been worse. That is the best that can be said of the assaults on women’s equality and reproductive freedom carried out during the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency—a stretch marked by grievous, if unsurprising, disdain for women’s fair treatment at home and around the globe.
That disdain was evident in the administration’s so far stalled attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare with a far less inclusive—and less female-friendly—Republican health plan. The noxious reversals that Trump and his minions have carried out in such a short time-frame is damage worth recalling at this critical benchmark.
Some of the harshest measures have international ramifications. Just a few days into his White House run, Trump reinstated the “global gag rule” (also known as the “Mexico City policy”), a ban on U.S. assistance to groups abroad that perform or even talk about abortion that has been a weighty political football tossed back and forth for decades. Beginning with Ronald Reagan in 1984, Republican presidents have imposed the gag rule, while Democratic presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, have rescinded it.
Actually, Trump didn’t just re-impose the old funding ban, he super-sized it, extending its reach beyond U.S. family planning and reproductive health assistance to non-governmental groups overseas to all “global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies.” There will be severe consequences. Under George W. Bush’s narrower gag rule, badly needed health clinics in developing countries were forced to shut down and the work of high-performing international family planning groups was seriously hampered. Millions of women and girls were kept from obtaining birth control, safe abortions, maternal care, and HIV-AIDS prevention advice. Abortion rates and maternal deaths from unsafe illegal abortions increased. The shift stymied political debate on abortion-related issues, along with America’s leadership on democracy and free-speech principles.
Earlier this month, Trump’s State Department went even further and moved to block funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), again shrinking the availability of key health and protection services to some of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized women and girls. The administration cited concerns about restrictive reproductive health policies in China, where UNFPA maintains a presence, but could provide no evidence that that humanitarian agency favors or directly supports coercive abortions or involuntary sterilizations.
“The UN Population Fund provides leadership in working against restrictive environments around the world for women’s rights, from addressing preventable maternal deaths to fighting against female genital mutilation and child marriage,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The Trump administration is making a decision that will cost women their lives.”
On the domestic front, however, Trump and the anti-choice Republicans who control the House and Senate have been less successful in turning back the clock. So far they have failed to demolish the Affordable Care Act and its accompanying contraception coverage mandate, one of their key early priorities. The first House scheme to replace Obamacare, concocted by right-wing male leaders, would have “stripped away maternity coverage, imposed restrictions on abortion coverage in private plans, and put affordable health coverage out of reach for many women and their families,” the National Women’s Law Center concluded.
Nor have Trump and company achieved their goal of preventing Planned Parenthood’s irreplaceable network of health clinics from receiving about $400 million in annual federal Medicaid reimbursements for preventive services, like cancer screenings and contraception. This move would essentially punish Planned Parenthood and the millions of people it serves, mostly low-income minority women, because the group also provides safe, constitutionally protected abortion care using non-federal money in compliance with current law.
However, those issues remain in play, and no one should underestimate the uniquely threatening atmosphere in the nation’s capital. Although attacks on Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights more broadly have inspired strong political resistance, Republican governors and state legislatures continue to serve up new restrictions on abortion and contraception access, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s 5-3 rejection of sweeping Texas restrictions last June. The ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt came months before Trump’s surprising ascendency and the arrival on the high court of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s hard-right choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia—a definite highlight of Trump’s first 100 days for far-right conservatives.
In the short term, Roe v. Wade seems safe. But the fundamental right of women to terminate a pregnancy that Roe and subsequent Supreme Court decisions have underlined could be in peril if the “rumored” resignation of an unnamed Supreme Court member this summer (according to speculation offered up by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa) comes to pass, creating a new vacancy for Trump to fill.
Meanwhile, just before Gorsuch’s confirmation at the end of March, Trump signed a measure that rescinded a last-ditch effort in December by the Obama administration to make clear that denying Title X family planning funds to Planned Parenthood and other family planning providers for reasons other than the quality of their care violates federal law. Passed under a procedural anomaly in the Senate, Trump’s ultra-anti-choice vice president, Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote to send legislation that undermines contraceptive care for women in need to Trump’s desk. Scrapping the Obama regulation is bound to encourage some states to undertake new efforts to defund Planned Parenthood—which, in turn, may invite new litigation. (The Obama-era rule merely clarified the underlying law and accompanying rules, which are still in force; the Republicans’ ideological problems with Title X funding still rest on dubious statutory and constitutional footing, as before.)
On the workforce front, Trump quietly signed another Republican gem in March, a party-line revocation of the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order and the 2016 expansion of that rule that President Obama put in place to ensure that federal contractors comply with existing labor and civil rights laws. (Contractors’ attempts to evade these laws have been a longstanding problem.)
Paycheck fairness is an issue on which Obama exercised personal leadership. Trump, who often professes his respect for women, could have stood up to Republican lawmakers determined to erase this measure as well as other sensible labor protections instituted by his predecessor. But it turns out that Trump’s well-known antipathy to transparency (think tax returns and the White House visitors log), extends even to a provision mandating the sharing of pay information (essential for salary negotiations and progress on equal pay) and a ban on forced arbitration clauses, also known as cover-up clauses, which are frequently used to keep sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination claims out of courts and hidden from other employees and the public.
Forced arbitration clauses in the private sector have garnered new attention, thanks to the Fox News sexual harassment scandal. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democratic champion of gender pay gap reforms, has called out the president for and potentially silencing victims and setting back women’s rights in the workplace “to a time best left to Mad Men.” Going forward, concerned Americans should expect more attacks on women’s rights and lives from Trump and be ready to challenge this onslaught at every opportunity.