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Nigerian Doctor and Reproductive Rights Campaigner Ejike Oji on Devastating Impact of Bush Family Planning Policies

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The Bush administration’s Mexico City Policy, known as the “global gag rule” by opponents, denies foreign organizations receiving U.S. family planning assistance the right to use their own non-U.S. funds to perform or counsel on legal abortions or lobby for the legalization of abortion in their country. Nigerian doctor Ejike Oji says this forces foreign NGOs to choose between vital U.S. assistance for essential family planning services and the real needs of women dealing with unwanted pregnancies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to talk about the confrontation of Condoleezza Rice by a CODEPINK antiwar protester calling her a war criminal. But first, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing Wednesday to illustrate the devastating impact of the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy on family planning programs and rates of unsafe abortions around the world. The Mexico City Policy, which is known as the “global gag rule” by opponents, was rescinded by former President Clinton in 1993 but reinstated by President Bush in 2001. The policy denies foreign groups receiving U.S. family planning assistance the right to use their own non-U.S. funds to perform or counsel on legal abortions or lobby for the legalization of abortion in their country.

Critics charge this forces foreign NGOs to choose between vital U.S. assistance for essential family planning services and the real needs of women dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Nigeria has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world, in large part due to unsafe abortions and lack of access to reproductive healthcare.

Dr. Ejike Oji is a Nigerian doctor, country director of an international group called Ipas, that promotes women’s reproductive rights around the world. He’s spent 28 years fighting unsafe abortions and testified at the House Committee hearing Wednesday. Dr. Oji joins us now in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to the studio and to the United States. Talk about the impact of the — well, what is known as the global gag rule on Nigeria?

DR. EJIKE OJI: When I first working in Nigeria in the late ’80s through second parties and consultants, they identified a very high need for women being able to manage their fertilities, because of higher contraception needs. And that has led to a lot of consequences of unsafe abortion, deaths and disabilities.

So the most important thing that we have seen is that U.S. funds, which funds other reproductive health issues like HIV and every other thing, is channeled through most organizations who do not have mostly the comparative advantage to be able to run our family planning services. And then, because of this inability for women to be able to get contraceptive methods that they want to choose to use to manage their fertilities, there’s a very high unintended pregnancies in the country, which leads to a lot of unsafe abortions.

As I speak, we lose about 10,000 women every year from complications of abortions. And for every woman that dies, 20 others are maimed for life. And then, you know that in a very low-resource setting like Nigeria, once a woman dies, the average child that is under five, the infant mortality rises. In fact, Nigeria has the highest infant mortality, as I speak, in the world right now. So the global gag rule has had a tremendous impact.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it works. You get a certain — where do you work in Nigeria?

DR. EJIKE OJI: I work in —- I live in Abuja -—

AMY GOODMAN: In the capital

DR. EJIKE OJI: — and we fund activities in about seventeen states in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: So you get U.S. foreign aid money, and what happens in the clinic? How can it be used? How does it affect the other money that you get?

DR. EJIKE OJI: Well, for us in Ipas, we didn’t sign the Mexico City Protocol. We didn’t sign it. We said we felt that it is the right of our organization to be able to look at the things that will help the women, and we didn’t take the money, and we didn’t sign it. So, there are other organizations also who have been doing a lot of family planning in the country, like affiliates of IPPF, but because of the global gag rule, they’re not getting the money anymore, so that means that family planning [inaudible] are reduced.

So it’s so difficult in a country where you have maybe one clinic serving more than half a million people, and you come to that clinic, maybe two or three providers, and they have about 20 or 30 patients at a time, and because one of the things I heard when I was in the Congress the other day during the hearing was one of the congressmembers saying, “Why can’t we supply the facilities? Why can’t the facilities” — in other words, if abortion services are being offered in one site, then the family planning services can be offered in another site. In other words, there shouldn’t be any mix, so that people will know that the taxpayers’ money in America is not being used for abortion services. But it’s so difficult to do this sort of thing, because everybody is talking about integration of services in one site, because it makes sense to do that, because of leverage and resources, both money and the individual that will do the work.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this doesn’t just go to actually performing abortions — right? — and ensuring that the U.S. foreign aid doesn’t go to the clinic performing the abortions, but even mentioning the word “abortion” — for example, if a woman says, “What are my options?” can you tell her that abortion is an option?

DR. EJIKE OJI: You can’t. The global gag rule is a monstrous policy, if I may use that word. People who work for USAID, even they are are making public pronouncements, talking about reasons that lead to a lot of maternal mortality, don’t even mention abortion at all. In a place like Nigeria, the contribution of abortion to maternal mortality is about 30 to 40 percent in some areas. Then you see major grants managers of USAID funds, and when discussing reproductive health issues, you never see “abortion” come out of their lips. And if you have 40 percent of something contributing to a big problem, I think it makes sense to at least talk about it. So they don’t even want to talk about it.

And organizations that even work remotely with USAID will never mention abortion or say abortion in their documents. In fact, recently there was a gentleman who has been a very major, shall I say, mover of making sure that women get services, self-services, in abortion-related issues — and he’s a reproductive health giant not just in Nigeria, in the whole of Africa, and he works very closely with us — the other day, he called me and said, “Ejike, you know, I won’t be able to be working with you anymore.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, I just got some USAID funding, and, you know, I can’t even talk about abortion.” It was a sad day in our office, because this is one of the major giants who have caused a lot of changes that has actually led to a lot of improvements of services.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Oji, what are you asking for? What did you ask for when you testified before Congress yesterday?

DR. EJIKE OJI: When I testified in the Congress, I made it very clear that that policy should be repealed. The policy doesn’t make any sense. Even in some parts of Nigeria, some people ask me, “How come the Nigerian woman cannot even get an abortion?” The money that comes from USAID, they say you can’t even mention abortion, not even provide abortion services, and we do know that women are dying from abortion-related issues. But in America, the American woman has an option, and this is the country that is sending the money.

Does it mean there are two sets of rules for two sets of people? The Nigerian woman can easily die from an abortion, but the American woman has an option. And it becomes a very difficult thing for me to even answer, because I work for an American organization that are providing services in the country. And so, it’s so difficult. So my clear submission to them, that, please, if you really love the women of the world — and I can tell you the USAID funds are doing a lot of great job out there, but a lot more could be achieved — they should just repeal that law. It doesn’t make sense at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ejike Oji, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Nigerian doctor and country director of Ipas, the international group that protects women’s reproductive rights and aims to reduce abortion-related deaths and injuries. Thank you for joining us.

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