March 8 is International Women's Day, an appropriate time to take stock of one basic need: reproductive freedom.
Unfortunately, the news is not good, and, our federal government bears much of the blame.
On his first day of office, President Bush issued what is known as the "Global Gag Rule." Under this executive order, first promulgated by President Reagan, family planning organizations outside the United States may not receive U.S. aid if they do any abortion counseling and referral -- even if such services are paid for with separate, private dollars.
Some family planning groups believe they have the medical, ethical and legal right to provide information on abortion options. But because of the Gag Rule, if they do so, they lose U.S. support for all their services, such as basic gynecological exams and AIDS prevention and treatment.
Organizations that do not sign the Global Gag Rule also lose access to contraceptives donated under family planning programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Because USAID and the U.N. Population Fund are the world's largest donors of contraceptives to the developing world, the Global Gag Rule has worsened worldwide shortages of contraceptives and condoms.
The results are deadly.
"Modern contraceptives are fundamental to enabling women and men to prevent unwanted pregnancy, protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, and avoid unsafe abortion -- a leading cause of maternal injury, illness and death in the developing world," notes The Global Gag Rule Impact Project, a collaborative research effort.
For example, every minute somewhere in the world a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth, according to Population Action International, an independent policy advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Implementing family planning practices to control high-risk pregnancies and to increase prenatal care could save many of those deaths.
Nor is the Global Gag Rule an aberration. The Bush administration has consistently substituted religious fundamentalist ideology for sound medical practices and, as a result, has emphasized abstinence over contraception.
Its international AIDS guidelines, for instance, belittle the use of condoms and say that they are to be promoted only for use by "high-risk groups" such as prostitutes.
Around the world, medical experts are appalled by the Bush administration's stance.
"We know condoms save lives," says Peter Piort, executive director of UNAIDS, the U.N. group coordinating global efforts against HIV/AIDS. "We are not in the business of morality. Condom promotion should be part of education about sexuality for young people."
More than 5 million people contracted HIV last year, and about 40 million people are infected. There is no known cure.
Worldwide, almost 50 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS are women and young girls, with the number reaching 57 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Women and young girls, who often have low social status, are vulnerable to coerced sex and domestic violence. They are also often economically dependent on men and have little access to reproductive health care, and they bear the brunt of the disease.
If we care about preventing unnecessary deaths, we should demand that the Bush administration drop its Global Gag Rule, actively promote condom use in HIV prevention and stop substituting fundamentalist religious ideology for sound public health policies.
In honor of International Women's Day, the women of the world deserve no less.