“Ideology Is No Excuse:” US Congress Calls for Emergency COVID-19 Exemptions to the Global Gag Rule and Defunding of UNFPA

Long before COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic, the U.S. Administration had been chipping away at its role as a leader in global health, in particular, in sexual and reproductive health. From the reinstatement and unprecedented expansion of the Global Gag Rule, to the short-sighted and harmful decision to eliminate significant U.S. funding for UNFPA, the UN agency dedicated to reproductive health, years-long efforts to restrict health access and rights have crippled some of the most effective global health actors that are now under unprecedented strain in the midst of the pandemic.

Significant damage has already been done, but it need not continue. This week, 135 Members of Congress joined together to urge the Administration to exempt emergency COVID-19 funding from the restrictions put in place by these destructive policies, which would allow critical U.S. support to flow now to front line health care providers around the world when they need it most.

The effort, led in the House by Reps. Speier, Lee, DeGette, Engel, and Lowey, and in the Senate by Sens. Murray and Shaheen, culminated in letters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighting the exacerbated impact of the Global Gag Rule and defunding of UNFPA on COVID-19 response and calling for specific actions from the Administration:

1. Exempt global health funding provided through emergency legislation from the restrictions placed by the Global Gag Rule, which prevents foreign non-governmental organizations from receiving U.S. global health funding if they provide information about, referrals to, or services for legal abortion, or advocate for legalized abortion, even with their own, non-U.S. funds.; and

2. Provide a humanitarian exemption to the Kemp-Kasten determination which prevents U.S. funding from flowing to UNFPA, allowing the agency to then apply for emergency supplemental funding for its global COVID-19 response; additionally, the Senate requests that the Administration halt work on a 2020 Kemp-Kasten determination, which would defund UNFPA for a fourth year in a row.

In the House letter, Members highlighted the harm caused by the Global Gag Rule and the elimination of funding for UNFPA which is now amplified in the COVID-19 response:

“We must ensure emergency funds can flow to the health care providers and community-based organizations that are best qualified and equipped to respond to this crisis and continue to provide essential, life-saving services even amid a pandemic.”

And in the Senate letter, Senators underscored the ask to Secretary Pompeo:

“We urge you to reconsider policies that prevent the United States from partnering fully with entities best positioned to deliver lifesaving care and supplies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Ideology is no excuse for hampering the international response to COVID-19, jeopardizing hard-won progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, or failing to act as access to contraceptive care decreases and gender-based violence increases.”

Projections show that if girls and women experience a theorized 10 percent decline in access to reproductive health care in the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout would be grim: An estimated additional 49 million women would not have access to modern contraceptives, leading to 15 million additional unintended pregnancies and an increase in women and newborns dying from preventable causes. Swift action by the Administration to grant these exemptions can, in the immediate term, restore significant funding and capacity to critical front line actors in the pandemic response and help ensure essential health services continue. But in the long term, a permanent repeal of the Global Gag Rule and restoration of funding for UNFPA is necessary to rebuild health care infrastructure around the world and ensure the health and rights of all people, including the unique needs and voices of girls and women, are prioritized — and that the next time crisis strikes, we are not caught on our back foot.

Support UNFPA’s critical response to the needs of girls and women in the COVID-19 pandemic here.

Learn more about the Universal Access Project and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.

Executive Director, Universal Access Project — striving for a world where all people can realize their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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