The “global gag rule” imposed by US President Donald Trump, blocking US funds to any organization involved in abortion advice and care overseas, could affect millions of women and girls, endangering their lives and those of their babies, Bill and Melinda Gates have warned.
The changes are expected to result in funding from the world’s biggest donor to family planning and women’s health programs in the developing world being slashed.
It could, Bill Gates told the Guardian, “create a void that even a foundation like ours can’t fill.”
Gates and his wife spoke out as they published a progress letter to Warren Buffett, the businessman who 10 years ago invested a large part of his fortune in the couple’s foundation, which has at its center the mission to save children’s lives.
Empowering women and girls was central to that aim, they said.
Trump signed an executive order reimposing the Mexico City policy, also known as the global gag rule, on his first full day in office.
Republican US presidents since Ronald Reagan in 1984 have imposed the policy, while their Democrat counterparts have lifted it. The rule strips funds from any organization that “performs or actively promotes abortion as a method of family planning” overseas.
However, Trump’s order goes further and applies to any organization that receives funding from USAID, not just those involved in family planning.
That expansion was a surprise, Melinda Gates said.
“We’re concerned that this shift could impact millions of women and girls around the world,” she said. “It’s likely to have a negative effect on a broad range of health programs that provide lifesaving treatment and prevention options to those most in need.”
“This includes programs that prevent and treat HIV, TB and malaria, and provide healthcare to women and children around the world. Enabling women to time and space their pregnancies and providing access to treatment and prevention of infectious diseases is lifesaving work. It saves moms’ lives and it saves babies’ lives, and that has long had wide support in the United States,” she said.
Bill Gates said the couple’s foundation would not be able to bridge the potential funding gap.
“The US is the No. 1 donor in the work that we do. Government aid can’t be replaced by philanthropy. When government leaves an area like that, it can’t be offset, there isn’t a real alternative. This expansion of this policy, depending on how it’s implemented, could create a void that even a foundation like ours can’t fill,” he said.
He had an early telephone call with Trump in November last year and then a meeting in December with the then-president-elect in New York, he told the Guardian.
They talked about the eradication of polio, which Gates hopes could come as early as this year, and the research his foundation is supporting towards an Aids vaccine and ways to protect people from pandemics, such as Ebola, in west Africa.
“So that was a good discussion — the fact that he was interested in having me talk about the foundation’s work — I was pleased,” Bill Gates said.
However, the philanthropist did not anticipate the scope of the executive order affecting family planning, an issue at the center of the foundation’s work, that Trump was to sign.
The letter to Buffett is an assessment of the progress the Gates Foundation has made since 2006, when he pledged 10 million shares in his company Berkshire Hathaway in annual installments worth a total of US$31 billion at the time.