For the past 30 years, the rights and welfare of women in the developing world have been dependent on who is sitting in the White House. But now, that can change.
The Global Gag Rule, when it is in effect, disqualifies some of the most effective and experienced family planning providers in the world from receiving U.S. assistance. Even though President Obama lifted the policy in his first week in office, the threat that a future president could reinstate it just as quickly is itself undermining family planning efforts in the developing world.
The Global Democracy Promotion Act (S. 119/ H.R. 2738) would end this cruel uncertainty by barring a future administration from unilaterally imposing the Global Gag Rule. Passage of this legislation is critical to ensure the stability of family planning programs. All members of Congress must do whatever they can to support this important bill.
The Global Gag Rule is a matter of life and death for women around the world. Lack of access to family planning information and services puts the lives and health of women at risk for no defensible reason. Millions of these women experience unintended pregnancies, and tens of thousands of them die from complications from pregnancies every year, including by unsafe abortion.
It is vital to ensure that women have access to the tools and information they need to protect their health and exercise their rights. The Global Democracy Promotion Act will help ensure that women worldwide have access to the full range of family planning information and services they need.
UNFPA is an essential agency that provides women in 155 countries around the globe with desperately-needed reproductive and maternal health services, including family planning, safe delivery kits, treatment for obstetric fistula, and services to those in areas devastated by natural disaster.
U.S. support for UNFPA is a cost-effective service provider that reaches millions of people around the world with critical health care—the agency saves lives and supports our broader diplomatic, development, and national security priorities.
UNFPA does not promote abortion as a method of family planning and does not condone coercion in family planning, abortion, or sterilization. However, funding to the agency has been threatened for years because of the program it runs in China. This program is designed to promote voluntary, rights-based reproductive health care, but anti-birth control members of Congress claim that any involvement in China must mean that the agency supports coercive population control. This has been proven untrue by a committee appointed by President George W. Bush, which traveled to China to witness the program in action. Still, the claim remains a popular argument among regressive members of Congress against funding the agency.
Population Connection fights to ensure that UNFPA receives adequate funding each year in the form of U.S. foreign assistance.
Since 1973, the Helms Amendment has strictly limited the circumstances in which it is permissible to use U.S. funds for abortion care overseas. The law bars the use of U.S. foreign aid for “abortion as a method of family planning.” The inclusion of that language clearly indicates, however,that there are circumstances where such funding is allowed.
Yet, for decades, the U.S. government has treated the amendment as a blanket ban. In fact, the law has been enforced so strictly that health care providers are barred from using U.S. funds even to purchase equipment to treat women suffering the consequences of unsafe abortions. The end result is that all around the world, women in the most desperate of circumstances—those who have been raped, those whose lives are endangered by their pregnancies—cannot count on finding help from clinics that receive U.S. funding.
The Helms Amendment should be repealed in its entirety. It has no benefit to foreign policy, to global health, to development, or, really to anything at all. It is, in fact, simply a relic of domestic abortion politics. And the domestic politics of abortion are totally divorced from the reality of the life that women struggling with unwanted pregnancies in the developing world face.
Sadly, though, it is difficult to envision the outright repeal of the Helms Amendment in the current political climate. The misinterpretation of Helms, however, is fixable without the intervention of Congress. We don’t need a new law; we just need the Obama Administration to clarify what the current law actually says.
President Obama has the authority to bring our overseas abortion policy in line with domestic abortion funding restrictions and with American public opinion.
Even with recent increases, United States funding for international family planning and reproductive health (currently $610 million) is 47% below the 1995 level (in constant dollars). Since then, the number of women of reproductive age in the developing world (excluding China) has increased by an identical 47%. That means that there is 47% less funding for 47% more people.
Today, 225 million women in the developing world would like to prevent or delay pregnancy but lack access to affordable and appropriate modern contraceptives. As a result of this unmet need, there are approximately 80 million unintended pregnancies in the developing world each year.
This huge unmet need for family planning contributes to a host of devastating consequences for the entire world: resource insecurity, social instability, and maternal and infant mortality. If the United States wants to meet these and other 21st century challenges, then it must make a real investment in family planning and reproductive health.
The U.S. must invest at least $1 billion in international family planning and reproductive health programs. This figure represents the United States’ pledged share of the total cost of eliminating unmet need for family planning worldwide. It is a sound investment in our future.