Across the globe, women and girls trapped by poverty and war struggle to get healthcare when they are pregnant and contraceptives when they don’t want to become pregnant. Many face violence in refugee camps, endure female genital mutilation, risk being married off as children, or lack things as basic as sanitary pads. The United Nations Population Fund, which subsists on the voluntary contributions of U.N. member nations, has been in existence for nearly 50 years to tackle these and other problems.
Yet the United States decided recently to pull all of its funding for the agency — a foolhardy and unnecessary move. The State Department invoked the Kemp-Kasten Amendment of 1985, which bars U.S. aid to any organization that the president determines supports or participates in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. The funding got pulled because the U.N. agency works in China — one of 150 countries where it operates — which has a coercive family planning program. The United States rightly denounces China’s forced “family planning” practices as violations of human rights. And if the Population Fund were somehow facilitating that policy, it might deserve to have its funding yanked. But it is not.
Not only does the Population Fund decry such practices, it has called on China to dismantle its coercive family planning program. (The agency deserves some credit for moving China away from its one-child policy to its two-child policy. Still bad, but less restrictive.) Besides, none of the money the United States gives to the fund is allowed to be spent in China, for exactly this reason. Nor is any money from any contributor spent on elective abortions anywhere.
So in order to make an empty, symbolic statement about China, the United States is pulling money that goes to efforts like this: maintaining the only maternity hospital in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where more than 7,100 babies have been delivered since 2013.
U.S. funding also supports reproductive healthcare (excluding abortion), gender-based violence prevention, and prevention and management of sexually transmitted infections in that camp and other sites in Jordan.
In Syria, U.S. funds go to mobile clinics, training of staff, and essential medicines and healthcare supplies in areas where existing health facilities have been damaged and resources are already strained by an influx of internally displaced people. Funds also support 42 health facilities and 32 mobile teams in 10 Syrian governorates.
The Population Fund’s 2016 budget was $842 million. The United States — not the largest donor — contributed just over $69 million.
What’s happening is part of an ongoing battle in which the agency has been used as a political football. Since 1985, Republican administrations have invoked Kemp-Kasten to withdraw funding — or part of it — and then Democratic administrations have read the law differently and restored the funding.
House members and Senators have written Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to reverse this decision. He should do so as soon as possible.
There are plenty of ways for the United States to limit how American aid dollars are spent — without slashing all funding from organizations working in desperately poor, underserved and conflict-torn areas of the world.
This editorial originally was published by the Los Angeles Times.