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In Protesting Trump's Harmful Abortion Policy, Sweden May End Up Hurting Women

In a clear act of defiance against the Trump administration, Sweden announced it will cut off funding to NGOs that obey the global gag rule, a notorious anti-abortion policy. But international women's rights organizations warn this may end up backfiring.
Photo by Ron Sachs via Getty Images

In a not-too-subtle dig at President Trump, Sweden has pledged to stop giving international aid to organizations that abide by the notorious global gag rule, a policy that prohibits all overseas family planning organizations that receive US aid from even mentioning abortion.

One of Trump's first actions in office was to sign an executive order reinstating the global gag rule, which is typical of Republican presidents; however, the Trump administration went even further than their predecessors, vastly expanding the policy's scope in a stunning blow to women's rights around the world.


Trump's expanded iteration of the global gag rule doesn't only apply to organizations that receive reproductive health and family planning assistance, unlike past versions of the policy, affecting 15 times as much funding, or around $8.8 billion. (The expanded policy now also applies to programs for maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tropical diseases, and malaria, among other things.) Ironically, it's estimated the rule actually contributes to an additional 2.2 million yearly abortions, because the policy increases the incidences of unplanned pregnancies.

Read more: Women's Health Week Isn't Anything to Celebrate Under Trump

Trump's decision to reinstitute and so drastically expand the rule received widespread condemnation from the international community. Sweden's Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin was one of the first to voice her criticism, describing the move as "a very bad road to go down if you want to save women's lives." Sweden subsequently joined an eight-nation-strong initiative to help raise millions of dollars to replace funding lost as a result of the gag rule.

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And after a photo of Trump signing the executive order reinstating the gag rule while a cluster of men looked on approvingly went viral—for the notable reason that not a single woman was present at the signing—Sweden responded with an image that was widely interpreted to poke fun at the US president. Lövin tweeted a photograph of her signing an environmental law flanked by her all-female colleagues, parodying the original image. It was a piece of geopolitical trolling that won Sweden many fans.


But now the Nordic nation has gone one step further—and, while well intentioned, the outcome may not be good. Earlier this week Sida (the Swedish government's international development agency) announced they'd be freezing aid to organizations that comply with the global gag rule.

"This is about women's own right to decide when, and if, they want to have children and how many children they want. Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are a prerequisite for being able to attend school and being active on the labor market," said Sida director-general Carin Jämtin in comments reported by The Local. "We have to defend SRHR and the right to abortion for girls and women in poor countries, and when the United States implements a policy that will hit the poorest countries and the most vulnerable groups—women and girls in need of care—Sida has to make sure that Swedish aid continues to go to those activities we have agreed on."

So far, it's uncertain how many NGOs will be affected by Sweden's move. A review is ongoing from the Swedish authorities, and they've only named Save the Children as definitely being affected. But, in practice, this means that charities and NGOs in the developing world will be forced to choose between American and Swedish aid funding. It's understood that Sweden is attempting to encourage other countries to follow suit.

It's hard to quantify the impact of Sweden's move on international aid services around the world. Sweden's total development aid budget for 2017 is 46.1 billion kronor, or 5.51 billion dollars. Although Sweden has also announced it will be increasing its funding for organizations providing sexual health services by a further 170 million kroner (26 million dollars), their budget is still dwarfed by overall US aid spending—which will be $37.6 billion in 2018.


While a well-intentioned gesture of defiance to Trump's anti-women policies, Sweden's move risks harming more vulnerable girls and women. The global gag rule puts organizations in a difficult position, and some are forced to accept its terms because US funding is vital to their mission of providing those in need with contraception and other reproductive health services.

"Sweden's proposed restriction amounts to a type of reverse gag rule that will only compound the confusion and further stifle NGO collaboration," says Jonathan Rucks of advocacy group Population Action International (PAI). "While it's critical for governments to stand up in opposition of Trump's deadly attack on women's autonomy, this move by Sweden, while no doubt well intentioned, will ultimately add to the chaos and make it even harder for women to access care."

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"We know that the global gag rule creates silos, dividing sectors within NGOs," another PAI spokesman elaborates. "With this policy in place, Sida grantees would have a barrier from USAID grantees, making them unable to collaborate. The key to moving progressive policies is having a broad coalition of stakeholders from every health sector working together. The global gag rule already denies US-funded organizations from participating in those coalitions. This makes the rift that much greater by alienating less progressive organizations who are key to these coalitions from the broader community."

Much depends on the detail of Sweden's policy; while it's been announced, no specific wording has been made available yet to NGOs. Still, it's possible that this measure—for all its good intentions—may do the very thing it set out to prevent: endangering the health of women and girls around the world.