The Trump administration has decided to defund the United Nations Population Fund, a UN agency that serves some of the most vulnerable mothers and mothers-to-be around the world.
UNFPA, as it is known, provides maternal health services around the world, including in some of the poorest places on the planet where simply being pregnant carries with it a high risk of death. When disasters strike, UNFPA sends emergency birth kits and set up field hospitals to make birth less deadly. They dispatch “emergency birth kits” which include among other things, soap, a clean tarp, an a razor to cut an umbilical cord. They train midwives in rural communities so at least someone in the area can provide a modicum of medical assistance during birth. They offer pre-natal care, including nutrition assistance, so women can give birth to healthy babies. UNFPA is also the lead the UN agency that supports family planning and provides contraception to women who want it. (They do a lot more than all this — including running programs to fight HIV/AIDS and promote gender equality.)
One thing UNFPA does not do? Provide abortions or forced sterilizations.
But that still did not stop the Trump administration last night from stripping US funding for UNFPA over this false allegation.
In a letter to Congress, the State Department invoked what is known as the “Kemp Kasten law,” which is a 1985 law that prohibits the United States from funding any entity that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
In the past, this law was invoked by Republican administrations over claims that UNFPA somehow supported China’s one child policy. In 2002, the George W Bush State Department sent a fact-finding mission to assess whether or not this was actually true. It came up empty handed, saying there was “no evidence” of this claim. Still, under pressure from social conservatives, the Bush administration withheld US funding from the agency. President Obama restored that funding, though Congress — each year — deducted from its funding the amount that UNFPA spent on services in China.
“People are stuck with their 1990s talking points,” says Peter Yeo, CEO of The Better World Campaign. “This is not a fact-based argument.”*
The letter to Congress invoking the Kemp Kasten law did not include any evidence or specific concerns over UNFPA’s support of participation in abortion or forced sterilization — probably because that evidence does not exist. Still, domestic American abortion politics have long overshadowed this debate. Now, for literally no good reason, the Trump administration is withholding money from a key international agency that saves the lives of mothers and babies.
How many lives are we talking about?
The latest year for which there is data is 2015. About 800 women a day, or 300,000 per year, die in childbirth. 99% of these mothers are in the developing world.
But that number is still a 44% decline from 1990. And in recent years those numbers have been dropping at an accelerated rate, of about 5.5% per year in some places, thanks in large part to the work of UNFPA. In 2015, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community set a target of reducing global maternal mortality rates to under 70 per 100,000 live births.
All that progress is now very much up in the air. And for no reason at all.