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Contraception is Lifesaving but Often Out of Reach

Family Planning Donors Should Assess Effects of US Funding Restrictions

Women and girls wait with their children outside a doctor’s office in Chitwan, Nepal. Child marriage and adolescent pregnancy is widespread in Nepal, and access to comprehensive reproductive health services and information is crucial. April 12, 2016. © 2016 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

Tomorrow, the Family Planning Summit will take place in London. There, governments, donors, and civil society will meet to review progress and recommit to enabling 120 million more women worldwide to access a modern form of contraception by 2020.

Family planning is lifesaving. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for adolescents ages 15 to 19 globally and cause 800 women and girls to die each day. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 22,000 women die from abortion-related complications each year.

Hosted by the United Kingdom, the United Nations Population Fund, and the Gates Foundation, the agenda of the summit will cover national policies, data on adolescents, shortfalls in contraceptives, and humanitarian settings.

But a massive setback to the summit’s goals is conspicuously missing from the agenda: the Trump administration’s dramatic expansion of the Mexico City Policy, or “Global Gag Rule.”

This policy strips foreign nongovernmental organizations of all US health funding if they use funds from any source to offer information about abortions, provide abortions, or advocate to liberalize abortion laws. The United States is the world’s largest health donor, and this policy applies to US$8.8 billion of foreign assistance.

Some of the organizations affected by this policy work in poor, underserved communities and will likely have to cut services and staff – contributing to more unplanned pregnancies, more unsafe abortions, and preventable maternal deaths.

The US remains an important donor and partner to successful global family planning efforts. But policies like the Global Gag Rule undermine these efforts at the same time.

Donors such as the UK, Canada, France, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Denmark, and Japan have shown strong support for sexual and reproductive rights. To protect their investments and meet the 2020 goal, their leadership is now more important than ever. Countries like Australia, which have long committed to reproductive rights but have drastically cut family planning assistance, should recommit to fulfilling previous pledges.

While it may not be politically strategic to highlight in the summit’s public discussions, donors and partners will have to factor in the harms of the Global Gag Rule moving forward, including by rigorously evaluating its impact on the outcomes of their own investments and on global goals for family planning and maternal mortality. 

Everyone attending should prioritize prominent and public support for comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights and services – including to safe and legal abortion.

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