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Opinion

Editorial: Stop playing political football with humanitarian funding for women and children

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Mohammad and Kholoud Suliman, whose baby daughter Rima was named after the UNFPA-supported Dr. Rima Diab who delivered her safely at the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordan/Syria border.
(Rachel Moynihan/UNFPA)

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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. (In fact, 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 U.S. gives to the U.N. fund is allowed to be spent in China, for exactly this reason. Nor is any money from any contributor spent on elective abortions anywhere.

What’s happening is part of an ongoing battle in which the agency has been used as a political football.
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So in an effort to make some kind of an empty, symbolic statement about China, the U.S. 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. The State Department heralded the work of the hospital in an online write-up on its own website in 2015.

In the immediate future, the Population Fund will keep the maternity hospital open with emergency contingency funding, but it will have to scramble to cover staff salaries, medical supplies and cross-border health work from Jordan into Syria.

The U.S. funding also supports reproductive healthcare (excluding abortion), gender-based violence prevention and counseling, 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, inducing the recently-bombed Terminan Hospital, a gynecology and obstetrics hospital in Idlib on the border of Aleppo.

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In Sudan, without U.S. funds, Population Fund officials say they will have to cancel obstetric fistula repairs for women whose bodies have been injured during childbirth.

The Population Fund’s 2016 budget was $842 million. The U.S.— not the largest donor — contributed just over $69 million. The Population Fund hopes to make up about half of that with other donations. The agency spends less than $2 million in China.

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 letters to the secretary of State urging him to reverse his department’s decision. He should do so as soon as possible.

Just a few months ago, the Trump administration took an even more disturbing step: It re-established the so-called global gag rule — prohibiting U.S. funds from going to any organization doing healthcare work outside the U.S. if that organization also provided abortions or just offered counseling about abortions. There are plenty of ways for the U.S. to set funding restrictions on American dollars — without slashing away all funding from organizations working in desperately poor, badly underserved and conflict-torn areas of the world.

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