Donald Trump defunding of UN's women's health service will cause 'millions to suffer'

Mythili Sampathkumar
UNFPA (United Nation Population Fund) supports the local Ministry of Health with a program that promotes maternal health and family planning in Sierra Leone (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Women all over the world “will suffer the consequences” of President Donald Trump's decision to cut US funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a leading women's health advocate has said.

The UN body receives approximately $75m (£60m) from the US, making it the fourth largest contributor. The US State Department has said it will cut $32.5m from the 2017 budget, with the potential to lose out on the millions more provided through "non-core funds".

Shannon Kowalski, Director of Advocacy and Policy of the International Women’s Health Coalition said that with US assistance, UNFPA in 2016 was able to “save the lives of 2,340 women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth, prevent 947,000 unintended pregnancies, prevent 295,000 unsafe abortions, and help 3 million couples prevent unwanted pregnancy.”

"This administration is putting politics over evidence, and women around the world will suffer the consequences," she said.

The Trump administration is cutting the funding on the basis that UNFPA supports “coercive abortion” in China according to a letter sent to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

By halting assistance, the Trump administration is following through on promises to let socially conservative policies that Mr Trump embraced in his campaign determine the way the US government operates and conducts itself in the world. Though focused on forced abortion — a concept opposed by liberals and conservatives alike — the move was sure to be perceived as a gesture to anti-abortion advocates and other conservative interests.

UNFPA covers much more than abortions. The agency is the largest global provider of contraception and related education, works to reduce maternal deaths, female genital mutilation, gender based violence, and child marriage.

Jonathan Rucks, Director of Advocacy for global family planning advocacy organisation PAI, told The Independent that women in areas of humanitarian crisis - like Jordan’s large refugee camps where 7,000 babies have been delivered without a maternal death - are particularly at risk because of the large cut.

The agency also works with women in Latin America affected by the Zika virus and those displaced and/or raped by members of Isis in Iraq.

Mr Rucks said that the administration’s decision to cut US funding is “devoid of fact.” He said the US contribution goes to “core financing” and mostly covers humanitarian assistance.

UNFPA does not fund or perform abortions or forced sterilisations, it is against their policy according to a statement by the agency. In the past, the agency has also been vocal about not supporting China’s “one child” policy.

Mr Rucks explained that no one in the administration seemed to travel to China to conduct an investigation on the matter and Mr Trump is incorrectly “tying the Chinese government to UNFPA.”

Ms Kowalski said the attempt to mischaracterise the work UNFPA does in China - promoting voluntary family planning education for women and girls in impoverished areas - is a matter of “putting politics over evidence.”

Mr Trump has not only threatened to cut all US contributions to the UN, calling the world body “a good time club,” but also reinstated the Mexico City Policy.

Also known as the “global gag rule,” the policy allows the administration to withhold US funding to any agencies or organisations that offer abortion services, or even speak about them to women.

Mr Trump has expanded on the version of the policy that was in place during the George W. Bush administration - US funding can now be cut to any global health assistance offered by organisations that offer or discuss abortion services, even medical services that have nothing to do with family planning or abortions.

Mr Bush actually amended the earlier version of “global gag” to exclude his largely successful State Department programme combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

De-funding abortion services actually increased the number of unsafe abortions during the Bush administration however, according to a report by the World Health Organisation.

Sherry Colb, a professor at Cornell Law School who has focused on women’s reproductive rights, told The Independent that “people who want to cut off family planning services to women imagine that there is some set number of pregnancies that will happen and that therefore, the women will either have the babies or have an abortion.”

She said this could not be further from the truth, adding “many of these women will have abortions that they never would have had if they had had earlier access to contraception.”

Ms Colb explained the risk increases dramatically in areas of conflict where medical services and equipment may not be up to high standards due to funding cuts.

“Different actions same results...this administration simply does not want to own that,” Mr Rucks said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the decision by the United States to withdraw all funding could have “devastating effects” on vulnerable women and girls around the world, a spokesman has said.

“The Secretary-General deeply regrets the decision by the United States to cut financial support for the UN Population Fund, which could have devastating effects on the health of vulnerable women and girls and their families around the world,” Stephane Dujarric said.

He added that Mr Guterres has appealed to donors to increase their support. Britain, the top donor to UNFPA, continues to support the agency, British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said.

The cut to UNFPA funding also comes on the heels of Mr Trump’s proposed 28 per cent cut to the State Department budget. The US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has not yet responded to the funding cut.

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