When Ideology Drives US Funding, Women Stand to Lose

This week, the Trump Administration delivered a major blow to global women’s health, announcing its intention to eliminate US funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). By invoking a legislative provision known as the “Kemp-Kasten Amendment,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision will withhold badly needed funding from a UN agency doing critical work around the world, including in Iraq, Syria, and other areas of crisis. It will also erect additional barriers to critical reproductive health care, particularly for some of the world’s most vulnerable women.

UNFPA is the largest international provider of contraception, family planning, and other reproductive health services. It works globally, with programs in more than 155 countries. UNFPA partners with governments, UN agencies, the private sector, and a wide spectrum of community, faith-based, and international nongovernmental organizations to deliver quality care, services, information, and training. The agency’s vital role in the world’s most extreme crisis zones means that its reproductive healthcare provides a lifeline for millions of people who are difficult to reach.

The Trump Administration’s decision is a politically motivated misuse of the Kemp-Kasten provision. First enacted in the 1980s, the Kemp-Kasten Amendment bars funding to any organization that participates in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. It has historically been used by Republican presidents to cut off funding for UNFPA based on the agency’s work in China. Although evidence has repeatedly shown that UNFPA’s work in China is not in violation of the anti-coercion law, opponents of the organization’s work continue to demand an end to US funding. As such, UNFPA funding has become yet another area where US domestic political pressures have come in conflict with evidence-based approaches, and women around the world have suffered the consequences.

The devastating consequences of this decision should not be underestimated. In 2016, with US support, UNFPA prevented an estimated 947,000 unintended pregnancies and averted 295,000 unsafe abortions. It ensured that some 3 million people had access to contraception. With US funding, UNFPA reached 9 million people in crisis situations, including those facing war and displacement in Syria, and those affected by or at risk of the Zika virus in Latin America. The United States has funded UNFPA services in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where the organization has ensured that every birth is safe, delivering more than 7,000 babies without a single maternal death. US funding is also critical for UNFPA’s work in Iraq, where a clinic provides critical services to women who are survivors of abuses inflicted by ISIL.

The US defunding of UNFPA comes amidst ongoing concern about the Trump Administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2017, which calls for a massive retreat from US global leadership and an assault on reproductive health. President Trump recently sent a proposal to Congress for a spending package to keep the government open after the current funding bill expires at the end of April. He calls for massive cuts to nondefense discretionary spending. The proposal includes a $2.88 billion reduction in State Department funding, including a $114 million cut to family planning/reproductive health programs and the elimination of UNFPA support. Together, these cuts represent a 24 percent decrease from current funding levels.

Taken as a whole, the proposed budget cuts and halting of UNFPA funding will have disastrous impacts around the world. The Trump Administration continues to play politics with women’s lives, allowing ideologically-driven policy to undermine evidence-based work. IWHC urges the Trump Administration to restore funding to UNFPA, and to fully fund the foreign assistance budget for fiscal year 2017.


Photo by UNFPA

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