Trump administration halts money to UN population fund over abortion rules

The US state department said on Monday it was ending funding for the UN population fund (UNFPA) – the first concrete move in what activists describe as President Donald Trump’s “crusade against the health and rights of women and girls globally”.

Following weeks of speculation, a letter to Bob Corker, the chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, announced the state department was dropping the funding because the UNFPA “supports, or participates in the management of, a programme of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation”.

The cut provoked a storm of outrage and anger with activists attacking what they call Trump’s “anti-women agenda”.

The UNFPA, the UN agency responsible for family planning and ending deaths in childbirth in more than 150 countries, said the claim it has any links to forcing women into abortions is not true.

The cut is Trump’s first in his nation’s funding for the UN. A draft executive order in January suggested the US, the UN’s biggest donor, could cut its voluntary contributions to the international body by up to 40%.

In 2016, the US contributed $69m (£55m) to the UNFPA towards the agency’s core costs, and short-term support for projects in humanitarian settings. In 2015, the US was the agency’s third largest bilateral donor, contributing $75m to its operations.

The organisation is the world’s largest provider of contraceptives. It provides reproductive health services to 12.5 million women in more than 46 countries.

Last month the Guardian learned that 27 short-term UNFPA projects supported by the US in some of the world’s most precarious settings were under threat. Those helping people fleeing violence in places such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq, face being axed later this year.

Trump reinstated the Mexico City policy – also known as the the “global gag rule” – in January. The global gag withholds US funding for overseas organisations engaged in any programmes that could relate to abortion.

Trump broadened the scope of the global gag to include all worldwide health assistance in his 23 January executive order, which withholds at least half a billion dollars in US funds. A lack of clarity around the rule, however, has left aid groups in an uneasy limbo and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers seeking clarity.

In a statement, the UNFPA said it regretted the US decision to end funding, which it said was based on an “erroneous claim” that the agency supports coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation in China. It refuted the allegation, saying: “All of its work promotes the human rights of individuals and couples to make their own decisions, free of coercion or discrimination. Indeed, United Nations member states have long described UNFPA’s work in China as a force for good.”

The memo outlining the reasons for the implementation of the so-called Kemp-Kasten amendment – the provision that prohibits foreign aid to organisations deemed involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation – states that there is no evidence the UNFPA engages in either.

The UNFPA said its mission was “to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled”.

“The support we received over the years from the government and people of the United States has saved tens of thousands of mothers from preventable deaths and disabilities, and especially now in the rapidly developing global humanitarian crises.”

The move comes as Trump prepares to meet the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday.

Lord Wood of Anfield, chairman of the United Nations Association UK, said: “America’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in funding from the population fund could be catastrophic unless others step into the gap. Not only would this money have reportedly prevented 2m unwanted pregnancies and the deaths of 77,000 children, but it represents America’s investment in global stability. Putting ‘America first’ means sticking to this investment, not backing out from an international system that has kept it safe for over 70 years.”

The International Women’s Health Coalition called the decision “a major blow to the world’s most important agency for reproductive health”.

“Foreign policy should be rooted in evidence and results, not ideology and the politics of punishment,” said Shannon Kowalski, its director of advocacy and policy. “Denying badly needed funding to the UN population fund means the US is threatening programmes in more than 155 countries where the agency overcomes barriers for the world’s most vulnerable women to access critical reproductive healthcare.”

Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said: “Today’s action shines a light on Trump’s anti-woman agenda.”

She said the cut “jeopardises the health and rights of millions of women and girls around the world”.

“Trump is relentless in his crusade against the health and rights of women and girls globally,” she added. “Advocates from around the world will not stand idly by as Trump and his administration attempt to reverse decades of progress in reproductive health and rights. Trump’s refusal to invest in strong, healthy, and empowered women and girls will jeopardise families, dismantle communities, and will kill women.”

The UNFPA is facing a funding gap of more than $700m until 2020. Last year, it reported a $140m shortfall as major donors, including Denmark and Finland, cut budgets.

Shirin Heidari, editor of the journal Reproductive Health Matters, said the administration’s stand would hit the poorest and have a “devastating impact” on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide.

“The UNFPA is one of the largest providers of contraceptives worldwide. This decision will not only not lead to a reduction of abortions, which I assume is what the US administration is aiming at, it will with high probability lead to an increased risk of abortion as women’s access to family planning and reproductive services in general will be undermined,” she said.

“We know that unsafe abortion remains one of the leading causes of maternal death, so it will have a huge impact on women’s life and health worldwide, particularly in the poorer areas of the world.”

She said the state department’s claim of coercive abortion was “another example of how these policies are based on false claims and on false evidence. The UNFPA is an agency that works on protecting the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and young people, they provide support including information and counselling and a range of contraceptive methods. It’s not true that they’re involved in coercive abortion practices.”

The UNFPA is hoping to benefit from some of the €181m (£155m) pledged at the She Decides conference in Brussels in March, held to fill the gap left by the reintroduction of the global gag, as well as the $650m Canada recently earmarkedto support sexual and reproductive health over the next three years.

Marge Berer, international coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion said the decision echoes what took place under previous US Republican presidents each time the global gag rule was reinstituted: “The UNFPA do not fund safe abortions, let alone forced abortions. The accusation is ridiculous and reveals Trump’s ignorance of the issues, and copycat behaviour, above all.”

“Perhaps being released from the stranglehold the US government has on anyone whose work on family planning they fund will turn out to be a kind of liberation for the UNFPA,” she said.

“However, there is no doubt that many of those who do provide information on and services for safe abortion – the only alternative to morbidity and deaths from unsafe abortion affecting millions of women every year – will suffer a serious loss of funding as a result of the Trump government’s vicious anti-women stance.”

Jane Roberts, co-founder of 34 Million Friends of UNFPA, a grassroots organisation, said in a statement: “This action was expected but is still shocking and ugly and based on lies.”

The cut follows Trump’s proposed 28% budget reduction for diplomacy and foreign aid, including an unspecified reduction in financial support for the UN and its agencies, announced last month.

UN officials have warned that abrupt funding cuts could trigger more global instability and argued that dollars for diplomacy are more effective than military spending in combating terrorism.

Dirk Van Braeckel, from the International Centre for Reproductive Health, said: “Abortion is not promoted as a matter of family planning within the international community working on sexual and reproductive rights. The main purpose is preventing unsafe abortion – that’s what it’s about. The UNFPA is not an advocate for abortion.

“Suppose you’re living in a country where abortion is illegal and access to family planning is very limited, and you are pregnant and in a situation in which it would be very difficult or even harmful for you to have this child. If you have enough money, you go abroad and pay private professionals. If you don’t and depend on public health systems, you don’t have access to help.”