25 years ago, UN member states met in Cairo for a groundbreaking summit: the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). It was a massive meeting, attended by some 20,000 government representatives, activists and nonprofits.
Their goal was to make international commitments to improve reproductive rights and health around the world. They ultimately pledged to increase access to education for women, reduce maternal, infant and child mortality, and ensure access to family planning methods and reproductive health for all. Among those in attendance was then US president Bill Clinton. The US had emerged as a leader in promoting global reproductive rights. It was an exciting time. The conference felt like a landmark meeting. It was history in the making.
What a difference 25 years makes.
A quarter of a century later, many of the actors that met in Cairo are reconvening this week in Nairobi for ICPD25, but under very different circumstances. While they will be enthusiastically renewing the original commitments, they are also essentially acknowledging that those original goals were never met. The current US president, Donald Trump, is not in attendance and, in fact, refuses to even fund the UN agency organizing it all. The big issue impeding progress? Abortion.
Attendees, however, still have high hopes. Despite a lack of progress, and the imposition of US domestic politics, they hope to set even more ambitious goals this time around. They want to totally erase unmet need for family planning (now out of reach for more than 230 million people), end preventable maternal mortality (about 300,000 women die every year from it), and stop gender-based violence (up to 70% women experience gender violence in their lifetime)—all by 2030.
It’s about abortion, isn’t it?
Trump’s isn’t the first administration to stop giving money to the UN Population Fund, or take issue with global reproductive health gatherings. All Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan have taken the same stance. Why? They all claimed the UN agency promotes abortion.
Ironically, the UN Population Fund actually exists thanks to Republicans. It was George H. W. Bush who pushed for its founding when he was President Richard Nixon’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1971 and 1973.
But only a handful of years later, sensing an opportunity to own the evangelical vote and to rally a movement around anti-abortion causes, Reagan made the anti-abortion message a key Republican value, thus turning reproductive care into a partisan issue and kicking off what has been a decades-long dance of politics and funding. Even the elder Bush set aside his old beliefs once he became president and defunded the UN agency. Republican administrations have since also championed other measures that limit sexual health, such as abstinence-only programs.
The attacks on the international agency are an example of how American politicians are using women’s bodies, and women’s rights, as a domestic political tool to gain support among their conservative base, and upending progress toward general reproductive health as a result. The UN Population Fund doesn’t even engage on the abortion issue. Instead it promotes family planning and contraception with the goal of limiting the need for abortions.
“Abortion is a sovereignty issue,” Shoko Arakaki, a UN Population Fund executive, told Quartz. This means the UN agency does not have the mandate to interfere with it, she said.
While defunding the UN Population Fund might gain some domestic political points, it does little to reduce abortion and, in fact, compromises important emergency programs worldwide. The agency, for instance, depends on funding to deliver emergency care to women in Venezuela (where, according to the agency, an economic crisis has left the country with almost no access to contraceptives). It also supports 270 hospitals in war-torn Yemen, which faces the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. Some 24 million out of 30 million Yemeni citizens are in need of humanitarian assistance.
“It’s not just about defunding [the UN Population Fund], it’s about defunding other local partners, too,” Massimo Diana, a UN Population Fund representative in Sudan, told Quartz.
Access to funding for reproductive health in nations that depend on international cooperation is made worse by the US government’s imposition of the so-called Global Gag Rule, which forbids any organization that even consults about abortion services from receiving US funds. The rule has left millions of women in poor countries at higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, pursuing unsafe abortion, or receiving poor maternal health. All while driving up the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
Just like funding for the UN Population Fund, the Global Gag Rule is switched on and off at the whim of whichever political party controls the US government, which leaves non-government organizations with sudden, large gaps in funding for their programs.
Jonathan Rucks, the director of policy at PAI, a reproductive rights advocacy group, said that while the Global Gag Rule “is a gift from the government to its [conservative] base,” its philosophy reverberates across the world, emboldening international opposition to reproductive care, including providing access to contraception.
As the conference continues in Nairobi, so does the partisan fire around that philosophy.
Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, published an unsubstantiated op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that “abortion extremists” (including the UN Population Fund) are allegedly hijacking the Nairobi Summit. US ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter echoed this position, and so did Health and Human Services senior advisor Valerie Huber, who took the stage at the summit this week. She said the US government does not support the conference’s agenda because it states that, wherever abortion is legal, it should be safe and accessible.
Meanwhile, three Democratic senators (Patty Murray, Jeanne Shaheen, and Jeffrey Merkley) wrote a letter highlighting the problems caused by the US government withholding funds for the UN agency; and democratic representatives Lois Frankel and Barbara Lee, with 36 cosignatories (all Democrats), published a resolution of support for the conference and the work it carries forward.
At the opening of the Summit, UN Population Fund’s executive director Natalia Kanem, said emphatically that “the reproductive rights of women and girls are not up for negotiation.” Yet, it seems, they are. They are used to bargain for political support in the United States.
In this, America stands out internationally. “I am not aware of other countries that extend their [reproductive health] policies internationally similarly to the US,” Rucks said.