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Story Publication logo December 7, 2015

Africa: Skewed Media Coverage of the Abortion Debate Affects Policy Abroad


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A seemingly harmless restriction on U.S. foreign aid money has effectively blocked abortion access...

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Faustina Fynn-Nyame, country director for the reproductive rights charity Marie Stopes Kenya, says Kenya was bullied by U.S. abortion politics into tightening its own restrictions on the procedure. Image by Jake Naughton. Kenya, 2015.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- The mass shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood has been widely condemned in the United States as a horrific act of domestic terrorism or, at minimum, the depraved action of a mentally ill loner.

In other parts of the world, though, it's likely to be seen as something quite different: another expression of Americans' widespread, hardline opposition to legal abortion.

Of course, Americans, broadly speaking, do not oppose abortion rights. But the false perception of the U.S. stance on abortion abroad is the result of the way the abortion debate is covered by both the U.S. and international media. The coverage almost universally focuses on the actions of abortion opponents, whether it's the Republican efforts in statehouses, Congress or the courts to ban the procedure; presidential candidates threatening on the debate stage to defund Planned Parenthood; or the occasional violence against abortion providers.

International news outlets rarely report on polls showing that most Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or most circumstances, or that abortion is actually legal in the U.S. up until the fetus would be viable outside the womb.

The gap between the global view of U.S. attitudes toward abortion, and the actual contours of the debate at home, have real-world consequences. In Kenya, for instance, the effect was on visible display during a recent trip to the region.

Kenyan political leaders are so convinced that the U.S. harbors deep animosity toward abortion, that the country revoked its official guidelines on the safe provision of abortions and implemented draconian policies so as not to offend what it perceives to be U.S. sensibilities against abortion.

Kenyans have this perception partly as a result of the Helms amendment. Named for Jesse Helms, an overtly racist senator from North Carolina (now deceased) who sponsored the measure, the Helms amendment has been around since the 1970s and prohibits foreign aid money from being used to pay for abortions under any circumstance.

"You only hear the negative stuff, which sends a clear sign to others that we shouldn't be doing this," Faustina Fynn-Nyame, the country director for the reproductive health charity Marie Stopes Kenya, told The Huffington Post. "You'll hear it on the BBC World Service a lot. You'll hear it on Kenyan news, the overseas coverage."

Fynn-Nyame's perception was reflected in most of the conversations HuffPost had with people in Kenya, who assumed that abortion is flat-out illegal in the U.S., and that the American people want it that way. In reality, Americans favor abortion rights by a roughly 15 to 20-point margin, depending on the survey, with consistent majorities backing it. Majorities also support funding for Planned Parenthood, which polls as one of the most popular institutions in the U.S.

The message that comes across is the opposite, however, according to Fynn-Nyame. "It's presented that the whole of America is completely anti-abortion, because the people who speak the loudest, everybody hears them more," she said. "It's presented that most Americans don't have access to safe abortion and that they don't want [expanded abortion access] happening in this country. Look at how they're going after Planned Parenthood, a lot of the publicity around that."

Funding from anti-abortion groups in the U.S. then amplifies the message. "The Catholic anti-abortion groups in Africa, they're getting money from anti-choice people in the US," Fynn-Nyame said.

"I've got to say, as much as I love America and so forth, this is one thing you don't need to export in Africa, this ugliness," she added. "Keep it in your own country. We don't want it in Africa. We've got bigger issues to fight."



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