Dear Congress, There is Nothing ‘Exciting’ About Cutting Access to Maternal Health Care

Republicans in Congress are running a gimmicky YouCut program in which fans get to vote on what U.S. federal spending they would like to see cut.  Apparently, the UN Population Fund was on this chopping block. Here’s Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, a Republican from North Carolina:

In an accompanying statement she writes:

“I’m happy to announce that the winning program of the first round of YouCut is the UN Populations Fund (UNFPA) which will save $400 million in taxpayer dollars over ten years. This program, which is receiving funding from the Obama Administration but was not funded under the Reagan or George W. Bush Administrations, raises many concerns over potential funding for abortions and forced sterilizations in countries such as China.”

I think it is worth re-hashing an explanation I gave a few weeks ago that very clearly shows that efforts to conflate UNFPA’s activities with abortion funding and with China’s one child policy are completely disingenuous.

UNFPA is a part of the UN–and there are several UN members states in which abortion is still illegal.  Beyond that, UNFPA’s steering document specifically excludes abortion as a method of family planning under UNFPA’s mandate. If that were not enough to convince you that U.S. funds to UNFPA does not go toward promoting or conducting abortion, the U.S. Congress has passed several pieces of legislation since the 1970s specifically stipulating that no U.S. funds can in anyway support abortion overseas.

Still, several members of Congress–most notably Chris Smith of New Jersey–are somehow convinced that UNFPA promotes abortion. Specifically, they are concerned that UNFPA abets China’s one child policy. This is false, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In 2001, the Bush White House sent a fact finding team to investigate UNFPA in China and found, “no evidence that UNFPA has supported or participated in the management of a programme of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in China.”

Despite this finding, the United States contributions to UNFPA–which amounted to $50 million last year–go into an account that entirely separate from the rest of the UNFPA’s funding. That is so Congress can automatically deduct dollar for dollar what UNFPA spends in China, about $3-$4 million.

To recap: UNFPA is forbidden by its own founding documents and its own members to support abortion. Beyond that, there are several pieces of U.S. legislation stipulating that American funding for UNFPA cannot be used for the abortion services it does not provide.  Beyond that, U.S. funding goes into a separate account so that Congress can deduct funds for money that UNFPA spends in China, evidently not in support forced sterilization.

So we know what UNFPA does not fund.  But what does it do?  After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, the United States gave the UNFPA $1 million.  Half of this money went to purchase and distribute “emergency birth kits” that included things like sterile sheets of plastic so women don’t have to give birth on the ground; a razor and rope to cut the umbilical cord; and a bar of soap.  Women were literally giving birth on the sidewalk. At least with these kits, they have a better chance of not dying while doing so.  The other half of the money went to combat the epidemic of rape that was running rampant in displaced persons camps by installing solar powered lights near latrines and other places women gathered.

In non-emergency situations, the UNFPA’s work is mostly focused on reducing maternal mortality in places like sub-Saharan Africa. This is accomplished by running programs that help women space their births more effectively and making sure that pregnant women have access to basic pre-natal care. To reduce deaths in the delivery process, UNFPA runs programs to train birth attendants.

It is pretty basic, run of the mill stuff that makes a huge difference in communities around the world.  “Saving women’s lives and saving the lives of their babies,” says UNFPA’s Sarah Craven. “That’s what we do.”

Beyond that, I would add that Congresswoman’s expression of pleasure over the fact that UNFPA “won” the YouCut competition is just so morally indecent. It would be one thing if she said, “The federal government has many competing budgetary priorities, and unfortunately in this time of austerity, we have chosen to cut our contributions to UNFPA.” But instead of issuing that kind of statement, she gloats over the fact that the United States is cutting funding to an organization that prevents women from dying in childbirth and provides young women with AIDS education.

Cutting UNFPA funds has real world consequences. It is certainly not something to be happy about.