The Support UNFPA Funding Act: Righting a Policy Wrong

Zara Ahmed, Guttmacher Institute

Updated on January 28, 2021: 

One January 28, 2021, President Biden signed a presidential memorandum that directed the Secretary of State to take steps to resume funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a reversal of the prior administration’s decision.  

First published on October 17, 2019: 

On October 17, 2019, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) introduced the Support UNFPA Funding Act alongside more than 100 cosponsors. The bill highlights the important contributions of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to ending maternal deaths, addressing the unmet need for contraception, and combatting gender-based violence and other harmful practices in over 150 countries around the world. Critically, the bill calls for restored funding to UNFPA for the next five years, which would help reverse some of the harm done to the institution by the Trump administration.

The Value of UNFPA

Since its establishment 50 years ago, UNFPA has been at the heart of global efforts to increase access to, and uptake of, sexual and reproductive health services. In 2018 alone, UNFPA reached 24 million women and young people with reproductive health services, assisted with more than one million safe deliveries in humanitarian or fragile settings, and averted 73,500 maternal deaths, among other contributions to the world’s health.

UNFPA operates in triple the number of countries as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), extending services to people who live in hard-to-reach or politically unstable nations. However, despite the achievements and ongoing effort of UNFPA, much work remains to be done, as there are:

  • More than 214 million women of reproductive age in developing regions who want to avoid pregnancy and are not using a modern contraceptive method;
  • An estimated one in three women worldwide who experience gender-based violence;
  • An estimated 200 million women who have survived some form of female genital mutilation; and
  • An estimated 15 million girls each year who are forcibly married before the age of 18.

Politicizing Public Health

Since assuming office in January 2017, the Trump administration has sought to undermine UNFPA as part of broader assaults on reproductive rights and engagement with global institutions. Despite appropriations from Congress, the administration has chosen to withhold funds from UNFPA for the last three fiscal years using a deceitful justification, incorrectly claiming that UNFPA does not adhere to the requirements of the Kemp-Kasten Amendment.

The amendment, which was first passed in 1985, prohibits U.S. funding from going to any organization that, as determined by the president, supports "coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization." Since then, Republican administrations have falsely claimed that, because UNFPA operates in China, it must be implicated in the country’s birth limitation policies and is thus ineligible for U.S. funding per the amendment. However, multiple U.S. delegations, including those selected by Republican administrations, have found no evidence of such support by UNFPA and have in fact highlighted the positive influence of UNFPA’s rights-based family planning programs in the country.

This administration’s choice to withhold UNFPA funding is motivated by politics but has serious ramifications for public health. Although U.S. funding only accounted for 7% of UNFPA’s global budget in 2016, those resources have been vital for carrying out UNFPA’s mission, operating in areas where USAID cannot engage, and demonstrating U.S. leadership in reproductive health efforts and responses global humanitarian crises. The administration’s choice to zero out this funding for UNFPA jeopardizes the health and safety of women and children around the world.

A New Way Forward

With the introduction of the Support UNFPA Funding Act, Congress has an opportunity to rectify the Trump administration’s failing in this area. The bill authorizes the appropriation of funds for the core functions and programs of UNFPA for five years. These resources would support the agency to work toward:

  • Ending preventable maternal deaths;
  • Ending the unmet need for contraception;
  • Ending gender-based violence;
  • Ending harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation; and
  • Supporting U.S. national security and humanitarian efforts by operating in areas affected by natural disasters, armed conflict or other humanitarian emergencies.

For half a century, UNFPA has quietly and diligently supported people around the world to make informed choices about their reproductive lives. Now is the moment for us, in turn, to support UNFPA to continue this work and accelerate progress toward a healthier, more just world.

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