Alternative Facts Are a Threat to Family Planning

Alternative facts threat to family planning feminist foreign policy

In early April, the Trump administration announced that it would cease funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). With $60 million USD of funding for international family planning at stake, it is important to separate the facts, “alternative facts,” and fiction.

President Trump’s funding cuts to the UNFPA threaten an organization with a long history of promoting gender equality, women’s reproductive health, and human rights. Since 1969, the UNFPA has been helping to “[deliver] a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person's potential is fulfilled.” It supports increased access to reproductive health care, contraceptives, and safe birth supplies. It trains healthcare professionals to provide quality services, and it also  works to prevent gender-based violence, genital cutting, child marriages, and maternal mortality around the world.

The UNFPA’s funding is entirely voluntary; its funds come from a range of donor governments, international organisations, foundations, charities, private sector groups, and individual donors. In 2015 this amounted to $979 USD million split between core resources and funds earmarked for particular programs. It operates roughly 150 country programs around the world, with the highest concentration in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The Trump administration recently renewed the 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment (different from the Global Gag Rule), which prevents US federal funding from being directed to international organizations that are involved in coercive abortions or forced sterilization of women. Before this recent change, the United States was the fourth largest contributor to the UNFPA, which raises questions about the reasoning behind President Trump’s U-turn in funding; according to the Trump administration, the UNFPA is involved in coercive abortions and forced sterilization through its program in China.

It is important to challenge these “alternative facts” to uncover the harm that such actions pose to international family planning.

This assertion by a US presidential administration is not without precedent. Former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also halted funding to UNFPA, citing its involvement in China’s family planning program: the “one child” policy.

Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, his administration has become notorious for its use of “alternative facts” that either divert attention away from or justify their actions. The cessation of funding to UNFPA is no different. Thus, it is important to challenge these “alternative facts” to uncover the harm that such actions pose to international family planning.

The 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment did not specifically refer to UNFPA; deciding which organizations are non-compliant is relegated to the president’s discretion under the amendment. This application of such executive power is misguided, as UNFPA is not involved in abortions in China or anywhere else. Its position on abortion is clear and coincides with the agreements made at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo: UNFPA “does not support abortion as a method of family planning.” However, the organization does support improving post-abortion care and ensuring the safety and accessibility of abortions in the countries where it is legal. This is the international standard to which the US agreed at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, and for which the US has since reaffirmed its support. Yet anti-choice presidents have sought to sever any connection of US federal funds to abortion abroad, in what Michelle Goldberg, author of Means of Production, deems the “proxy skirmishes in the American abortion wars.”

Renewing the 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment is ahistorical because the Chinese “one child” policy, which the defunding UNFPA is premised on, has since been reformed. This policy, which scholars consider to be “unchecked Neo-Malthusianism,” was enacted in 1979 in response to Chinese leaders’ fears of overpopulation. The policy imposed fines on families who had more than one child, though exceptions for two children were created (Zhang, 2017). Zealous implementation led to an aging population, skewed gender ratios, and human rights concerns, namely through coercive abortions, sex selection, and forced sterilization (e.g. The Economist, 2012). In 2015, the policy was reformed to allow for Chinese families to have up to two children. While these current Chinese restrictions should still be on the US human rights agenda, cutting UNFPA funding is not the answer; it fails to consider both the evolution of Chinese policy and the existing US law governing federal funding of UNFPA.

This action disguises a much deeper problem in US population policy.

Irrespective of the legal status of the ‘One Child’ policy, US federal funding is not used in the UNFPA China program. Of the $60 million USD in annual federal funds that the US directed to UNFPA, not a single dollar was channeled to UNFPA programming in China. In 1994 a policy was enacted that prevented US federal funds donated to UNFPA from being used for abortions or in the China program. Moreover, the “Global Gag Rule” further protects against any US involvement in abortions. Trump’s UNFPA funding cuts have no effect on China’s policies because no funding was directed there previously. But the loss of UNFPA funding does have an effect on the 150 countries that rely on the family planning services provided by the organization. The Trump administration’s justification for funding cuts to the UNFPA is therefore misleading. Worse yet, this action disguises a much deeper problem in US population policy.

When considered in conjunction with the Global Gag Rule and other such changes in policy, the defunding of UNFPA appears to largely be a disapprobation of abortion as a procedure and practice rather than a response to Chinese policies. Marge Berer, International Coordinator for the International Campaign for Womens Right to Safe Abortion, argues that moral judgements about reproductive health take precedence in US family planning policies. Indeed, doctors Ann C. Hwang and Felicia H. Stewart of the Center for Reproductive Health Research at University of California San Francisco suggest that the 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment is ideologically-driven rather than evidence-based, which ultimately works to the detriment of women’s health and wellbeing. Pushing beyond this line of reasoning, SImmons College Professor Denise Horn says that “despite [US family planning policies’] current invocation as a moral issue, an issue of female empowerment or one of environmental degradation, population control remains a security concern cloaked in the language of development.” Thus, there are clear power dynamics at play involved in the regulation of women’s bodies around the world.  While concern for coercive abortions and involuntary sterilizations is important, couching the defunding of UNFPA in terms of concern for women is problematic.

The real facts simply do not support the existence of such coercive actions by UNFPA, but rather show the organization’s critical role in family planning and reproductive healthcare worldwide. The defunding of UNFPA risks the health and wellbeing of women in the over 150 countries that rely on its programming or services. While countries such as Sweden and Iceland have committed to funding increases that will help fill the gap left by the US, the defunding of UNFPA reveals the significant power the US holds in the regulation of reproductive health around the world - and how much is at stake when we allow alternative facts to determine policy.

For more information on funding for international family planning, please visit the UNFPA website. If you are in the US, contact your elected representatives about this issue by visiting the House and Senate websites to retrieve their contact details.


Olivia Engle is currently a postgraduate student in International Development at the University of Manchester.