On the heels of Vice President Biden’s recent trip to China, the GOP leadership of the House of Representatives issued a misguided ultimatum to President Obama: defund UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, or else.
UNFPA is an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data to develop policies and programs to reduce poverty, to strengthen reproductive health programs, and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect. In a world where 215 million women want access to family planning services but do not have it, in which women make up the majority of those infected with and affected by HIV and AIDS, and in which complications of pregnancy remain the leading cause of deaths among women in many countries, UNFPA is needed more than ever before.
This is not a controversial agenda. In fact, it is one shown to be supported by the vast majority of Americans. As noted by a Guttmacher Institute Report, 91 percent of Americans believe that “every woman on the planet deserves access to quality maternal and reproductive health care.” Another found 89 percent in favor of “health care services, including access to basic health care and family planning services” as a way to promote economic development and advance the status of women and girls.
But as a result of misguided ideology and politics, and at a time when women’s most fundamental rights are under assault, we have been thrust into a dangerous game of falsehoods versus reality- and the stakes are high. What is the life of one woman worth? When reproductive rights are politicized, the health and safety of every woman hangs in the balance.
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Each year, over 150 countries around the world contribute to helping UNFPA carry out the vital tasks it has been assigned by members of the United Nations, including the United States of America. As a global leader, the U.S. should continue to show the way. U.S. financial support to UNFPA affirms the United States’ long-held commitment to save lives, slow the spread of HIV and encourage gender equality. Yet partisan politics continues to play an leading role in U.S. contributions to UNFPA. Despite systematic attempts in past Administrations to link UNFPA’s promotion of voluntary family planning services to China’s one child policy, no such connection exists. In 2002, both a UK parliamentary delegation as well as an independent blue-ribbon delegation sent to China by the U.S. State Department found no evidence that UNFPA supported China’s coercive birth policies. Indeed, the delegation reported that UNFPA advocated against and was a force for changing those policies. Still, UNFPA received no contribution from the U.S. from 2001 to 2007.
To be clear, UNFPA does not support coercion in family planning, coercive abortions or forced sterilizations anywhere. The rejection of these practices is a fundamental principle of UNFPA’s mandate from members of the United Nations members, and as part of the mandate of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), the development of which the U.S. played a critical leadership role.
In reality, UNFPA promotes voluntary family planning and opposes all forms of coercion, targets or quotas. Americans support the work of UNFPA and recognize that the ability to make important decisions about childbearing is one of the most basic human rights. Supporting voluntary family planning and reproductive health care programs is a critical step toward improving the status of women and upholding these basic human rights around the world. And, as about one fifth of the world’s population, Chinese men and women have the same right as peoples elsewhere to learn about and gain from the voluntary approach family planning. And this is exactly what Americans want UNFPA to continue doing on the ground.
Claims attempting to link UNFPA with a gender imbalance resulting from son preference in China are equally unfounded. The UN and UNFPA in particular have made strong declarations against gender imbalance. In fact, UNFPA broke the taboo on this issue and became the first international agency to highlight the problem to Chinese authorities. Along with other UN agencies, UNFPA is coordinating an initiative on joint work to tackle the root causes of son preference. UNFPA’s 2008-2013 Strategic Plan calls for issues around sex preference and sex-selection to be included in analyses of efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals, in reproductive health-care studies, and in international forums. Today, UNFPA continues to promote gender equality in China and leads efforts to reduce discrimination and violence against women.
UNFPA’s core programs help mothers survive pregnancy and childbirth, and deliver healthy newborns. The programs also encourage and enable couples to determine the number and spacing of their children and reduce the incident of HIV/AIDS. When U.S. funding is withheld, UNFPA’s lifesaving work will unquestionably dwindle, making women the pawns in this dangerous game. We simply cannot allow this to happen in the spirit of ideological demagoguery and ultimatums.