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U.S. defunds U.N. Population Fund, cutting health services to 9 million people

Access to contraception is scarce in Malawi, where women have an average of six children. Most say their preferred family size would be four children. (DFID - UK Department for International Development/Flickr)

The U.S. has withdrawn funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an agency that promotes family planning for millions of women and families in more than 150 countries.

According to estimates from the U.N. Foundation, the loss of funding for just one year will prevent the delivery of services, including sexual and reproductive health assistance and gender-based violence counseling, to 9 million people in humanitarian settings.

The U.S. State Department said it was withholding some $69 million in funding for the fiscal year of 2017, claiming that the U.N. body violated the Kemp-Kasten Amendment – a decades-old provision that prohibits U.S. foreign aid from supporting or participating in the management of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.

The UNFPA called the claim “erroneous” and assured that all of its work promotes the rights of people to make their own decisions, free of coercion or discrimination.

“UNFPA does not fund or promote abortions anywhere in the world, period, even where abortion is legal. Second, UNFPA has never, and does not, promote coercion or birth quotas anywhere in the world,” said Seema Jalan, executive director of the U.N. Foundation’s Universal Access Project, in a press call with reporters. “Even in [the State Department’s]own memo … it makes clear that there is absolutely no evidence that the UNFPA is in violation of Kemp-Kasten.”

The UNFPA is the primary mechanism through which the international community delivers maternal and infant health care, voluntary family planning and contraceptive services.

The need for such health services is acute in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates routinely hover around six children per woman. Most lack access to contraception, which has been linked to numerous benefits including increased education for women, better child health, greater family savings, slower population growth and stronger national economies, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

U.N. agencies such as the UNFPA are funded by governments voluntarily. The U.S. has long been one of the largest funders, contributing an annual $31 million to its standard “core” budget as well as additional funding to other donation streams that brought its contributions closer to $76 million in the 2015 fiscal year.

Last year, U.S. contributions for international reproductive health prevented an estimated 320,000 unintended pregnancies, 100,000 unsafe abortions and 10,000 maternal deaths, according to the U.N.

This support has been tenuous under the last two Republican presidencies. President George W. Bush defunded the UNFPA from 2002 to 2008 on the claim that it was supporting China’s “one child” family-planning policy – despite a report from a State Department fact-finding team that found “no evidence that UNFPA has supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in China.”

Women’s health advocates warn that U.S. support for family planning and reproductive health services is even more uncertain under the Trump administration, which in January reinstated a controversial policy that withholds funding for international organizations that perform abortions or provide information about abortion.

Known by critics as the global gag rule, Trump broadened its scope to include all global health assistance, withholding at least half a billion dollars in U.S. funding.

“The global gag rule – essentially cutting off funding for family planning for foreign NGOs who do this important work around the world – in addition to Kemp-Kasten, which is now being used falsely to cut off funding for UNFPA … will directly impact the poorest women and girls on the planet,” Jalan said. “The women and girls and the people who absolutely rely on these services, those are the individuals that will be directly impacted by these cuts, and it has no recourse.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at