Global Reproductive Health in the Presidential Campaign Crosshairs

It would be stretch to say that the US presidential contest will be decided on foreign policy. It is an even deeper stretch to presume that most voters will make their choice based on the candidates’ approach to international institutions, the United Nations or global health issues.  (Sadly, not every voter is a UN Dispatch reader!)

Still, one of the sharpest differences you will find between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is their approach to global reproductive health care in general and the United Nations Population Fund, known as UNFPA, in particular. Every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan has witheld American contributions to UNFPA. Every Democratic administration since then has restored funding.

On day three of his Presidency, Obama restored American funding to UNFPA. Mitt Romney has pledged to reverse that on day one. 

“Mine will be a pro-life presidency,” he said. “On day one…I will cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which supports China’s barbaric One Child Policy.”

That specific charge is demonstrably false. UNFPA does not support China’s “One Child Policy.” You don’t have to take my word for it.  In 2002, as the Bush administration weighed cutting American contributions to UNFPA, it sent a State Department fact-finding mission to investigate. The report, which was signed by Colin Powell, says: “We found no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the PRC.” That should have settled it, but the George W. Bush administration still used the charge as a pretext to block funding.

Beyond China, the steering document that drives the entire work of UNFPA states explicitly,  “In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” This should be intuitive to anyone who knows how the UN works: the UNFPA is membership organization and there are several countries in the world in which abortion is illegal. Thus, even if the UNFPA wanted to, it would be institutional suicide to support abortion services.

Those facts have not prevented funding for UNFPA from being used as a political wedge in the United States — and this is deeply, deeply unfortunate. There are 200 million women in the developing world lack access to modern contraception; approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day; in South Sudan, childbirth and pregnancy — not war and conflict–is the leading cause of death for women.  Of all the Millennium Development Goals, the ones related to promoting maternal health are the farthest from completion.

UNFPA works to reverse those trends. It is the main vehicle by which the international community supports the provision of reproductive health care in the developing world. It is on the ground, fighting day-to-day to save the lives of mothers, giving teens the tools to avoid pregnancy (if that is what they want) and making sure babies are born healthy.  When emergencies like the Haiti earthquake strike, UNFPA distributes “clean delivery kits” that include “plastic sheeting to lay on the ground, soap for washing hands before assisting delivery, a clean razor blade and string to cut and tie the umbilical cord, and a blanket to protect the newborn baby from hypothermia.”

There should be no controversy about the value and utility of boosting access to modern contraceptive services, reducing maternal mortality, and promoting safe motherhood. But to the detriment of mothers across the world, UNFPA has become swept up in the domestic American debate about abortion. It looks like that won’t change during this election cycle. But the more we talk about what the UNFPA does and does not do, the better chance we have to make its work uncontroversial and a-political.