One of the arguments of my new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, is that American abortion politics have an even greater impact on the health of women worldwide than on women at home. To be sure, since Reagan, Republican presidents have worked to erode reproductive rights, especially in their court appointments. But with Roe v. Wade standing, there was a limit to how much they could do. Overseas is another story – around the world, the vicissitudes of U.S. politics has resulted in wild swings in family-planning availability and in diplomatic pressure on countries to either restrict or expand reproductive rights.
Hillary Clinton’s amazing congressional testimony yesterday made that incredibly clear. New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith asked her whether the Obama administration is seeking to “weaken or overturn pro-life laws and policies in African and Latin American countries,” and whether the United States considers abortion as a component of reproductive rights and health. Smith knows the influence the United States can wield on this issue, since he’s often used his office to bolster anti-abortion forces worldwide. In 2004, for example, when Uruguay moved to liberalize its abortion law, Smith faxed a letter, signed by five other Republican congressmen, to every member of Uruguay’s Senate urging them to defeat the bill and not “legalize the violent murder of unborn children.” It lost by four votes. Anyway, Clinton’s answer to him was thrillingly unequivocal:
When I think about the suffering that I have seen, of women around the world. I’ve been in hospitals in Brazil, where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies, and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. I’ve been in African countries where 12 and 13-year-old girls are bearing children. I have been in Asian countries where the denial of family planning consigns women to lives of oppression and hardship.
So we have a very fundamental disagreement. And it is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate, and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so, and so are we. We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health, and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.
Given all the taboos, controversy, and hypocrisy that have surrounded abortion as an international public-health issue, this was an amazingly brave statement. And given the fact that nearly 70,000 women die worldwide each year from botched abortions, and many more are permanently maimed, it was a potentially life-saving one.