Fulfilling promises that he made in his 2020 election campaign, President Joe Biden restored United States contributions to the United Nations Population Fund on Jan. 28. Through another executive order, he also overturned crippling US aid restrictions worldwide that had been demanded by anti-abortion lobbies. The Mexico City policy restrictions — also known as the global gag rule — have been wiped off the American aid agenda for now.
Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the restoration of US contributions to the UN Population Fund as a “powerful message” to the world.
“The decision will transform and save women’s and girls’ lives across the world, from the most pressing humanitarian emergencies to the most remote and hard-to-reach communities, and everywhere in between,” Guterres said in a statement. The money for 2021 is in the pipeline.
Although the global gag rule policy was announced almost four decades ago by the administration of Ronald Reagan, at a UN world population conference in Mexico City, it has been recently employed with the greatest severity and most damaging effects by the Trump-Pompeo team.
The Washington-based research and advocacy organization PAI found in field studies that the welter of demands and rules imposed by the Trump administration on nongovernmental organizations in poor counties was reducing access to maternal health and family planning to a shambles while overburdening the providers with unmanageable monitoring and reporting obligations.
US contributions to the Population Fund do not fall under the Mexico City policy but under legislation named for its Congressional sponsors as the Kemp-Kasten Amendment. The amendment was intended as a national budget rider, based on debunked reports that the UN organization was supporting forced abortion in China.
The amendment prohibited all contributions to the Population Fund, but at the discretion and direction of American presidents. Predictably, it has been imposed by Republican administrations and rescinded by Democrats.
In a memo that followed President Biden’s announcement on Jan. 28, the newly installed Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, provided details about the decision. The State Department, he said, was “taking the necessary steps to make $32.5 million appropriated by Congress available in 2021 to support the United Nations Population Fund.”
“UNFPA’s work is essential to the health and well-being of women around the world and directly supports the safety and prosperity of communities around the globe, especially in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” Blinken added.
“As the largest donor to both maternal health and voluntary family planning programs, including the provision of life-saving health care services in crisis settings, the United States will continue its efforts to make pregnancy and childbirth safer by strengthening health systems to provide women with integral health services, including increased access to maternal health care and voluntary family planning,” the Blinken memo noted.
“The United States will also partner with governments, the private sector, and international and non-governmental organizations to improve health outcomes and empower women and girls so that they can realize their full potential and help drive social and economic development.”
Advocates for unrestricted reproductive health aid for the millions of women and families who need it quickly combined celebrations of the new presidential orders with calls for what may come next.
A campaign is being revived in the US Congress to make the Biden orders permanent. Women in Congress, led by two Democrats, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Rep. Barbara Lee of California, are promoting the Global Her Act, which would reverse and permanently prohibit the use of a global gag rule. The proposed law would allow health programs abroad to receive US funds that provide, among other services, abortions where they are safe.
The Congressional bills have received the backing of other legislators and endorsements from more than 200 civil society organizations working in reproductive health. Democrats control both houses of the American legislature, so hopes are high that the bill could become law.
The Democratic margins are thin, however, and results of midterm elections in 2022 will be uncertain. Moreover, some Democrats are dubious about whether new laws and policies will have significant effects.
Biden’s orders are not enough, said Nancy Northrup, chief executive of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement after the new policies were announced.
“We applaud these actions and urge the Biden administration to act swiftly to address all aspects of the harmful anti-reproductive rights legacy of the Trump administration,” Northrup said, listing Trump-Pompeo efforts to redefine human rights ideologically with a tinge of misogyny, while ignoring badly served populations.
“But it is not enough for the Biden administration to return to the pre-Trump status quo,” Northrup said. “There is urgent work still to be done to fulfill the President’s commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
Among the proposals Northrup suggested was sustained review and monitoring of women’s reproductive rights to correct persistent inequities in health care. Maternal health care needs to be “respectful” and scientific, not ideological, she said.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.