The United States’ Withdrawal from WHO Is a Shortsighted Tantrum with Lasting Consequences for Sexual and Reproductive Health

Zara Ahmed, Guttmacher Institute
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First published online:

Updated on January 21, 2021: 

On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a letter ceasing the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, stating that "the WHO plays a crucial role in the world’s fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as well as countless other threats to global health and health security."

First published on July 7, 2020:

On July 7, 2020, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration officially began the process of withdrawing the United States from the World Health Organization (WHO). Under flimsy pretenses, the administration is pulling the United States out of the premier multilateral public health institution—one it helped found in 1948 and to which it has been the largest donor for many years.

Once the year-long process is complete, the United States will stand alone outside the WHO, while the remaining 193 member countries collaborate to fight COVID-19, work to eradicate polio and measles, tackle health disparities and address a host of other critical public health issues.

Among WHO’s top priorities is sexual and reproductive health. For decades, WHO has worked tirelessly to improve access to contraception, decrease the incidence of violence against women and girls, detect and treat cervical cancer, promote maternal and newborn health, and much more. But few people, including in the Trump administration, understand the breadth, depth and quality of WHO’s efforts. Here are just a few of the ways that WHO leads on sexual and reproductive health:

  1. Producing standards: WHO is the leading source for technical and policy guidance on a wide range of topics related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. When countries, partners and even U.S. government agencies want to improve their policies and clinical guidelines, they first look to WHO for sound, scientific and robust information in multiple languages.
  2. Implementing programs: WHO partners with ministries of health, nongovernmental organizations, universities and others to implement evidence-based programs that save the lives of women and children. This includes work to increase access to immunization, reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and promote safe childbirth.
  3. Driving innovation: WHO invests in technology and platforms that help transform the way reproductive health care is delivered, especially in low- and middle-income countries. WHO is rigorous in evaluating and improving upon new technologies, accelerating the pace of change.
  4. Addressing disparities: WHO highlights stark inequities in sexual and reproductive health between various populations by providing data on disparities and offering effective solutions to address them. At a time of persistent health inequity, WHO shines a spotlight on health disparities and makes sure that vulnerable populations are not forgotten.  
  5. Hosting data: The quality and quantity of data hosted by WHO is unparalleled. WHO’s Global Health Observatory is a vital resource for researchers and organizations looking to understand and close gaps in sexual and reproductive health services.
  6. Promoting accountability: All United Nations member states, including the United States, signed on to the Sustainable Development Goals, which include goals for sexual and reproductive health. WHO publishes annual reports on progress toward these goals, allowing the public to hold countries accountable for reaching them.
  7. Advancing research and development: WHO supports research and development to improve sexual and reproductive health, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes studying not only clinical issues, but also gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination, and disruptions to health systems.
  8. Advocating for marginalized communities: WHO recognizes that people in marginalized communities, including people living in humanitarian settings and those who are LGBTQ+, have unique needs for sexual and reproductive health and rights. WHO has invested in research and programs to support these groups and ensure that they have access to tailored health interventions.
  9. Supporting the workforce: WHO produces training packages to help educate new generations of sexual and reproductive health providers. These detailed guides cover a range of services and ensure that care is provided safely, effectively and with dignity for all. WHO recognizes that having a range of providers—from doctors to community health workers to pharmacists—is critical to addressing unmet needs, tailoring services to specific populations and improving the quality of health services.
  10. Bolstering the supply chain: WHO hosts the Reproductive Health Essential Medicines Resource Portal, an invaluable tool for countries seeking to strengthen their supply chains and promote access to sexual and reproductive health commodities. WHO makes sure that people have the products they need, available when and where they want them.

The Trump administration’s choice to withdraw the United States from the WHO is shortsighted and ill-informed. Not only will it hamper global and U.S. responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will undermine the progress made on sexual and reproductive health over the past several decades. The loss of funding and technical partnership with the United States will mean that fewer people around the world will receive the care that they want and need.

This action is unacceptable. To mitigate the harm caused by this reckless and dangerous decision to withdraw, Congress must continue to fund the WHO at robust levels. Should the Trump administration come to its senses, or when new leadership is elected, the United States can rejoin the WHO and continue to be an integral part of the global health community. Doing so is not only good for the health of people around the world, but also for health and security in the United States.