How the U.S. Can Save Mothers in Poor Countries

ByCorinne White

The United States should improve standards for maternal health in developing countries by protecting federal funding to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and pipelining those funds more effectively. 

Ronald Reagan enacted the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, in 1984. This rule prohibits funding to international aid organizations that support family planning initiatives, following from the notion that taxpayer money should not pay for abortions. Presidents George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush upheld the policy and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rejected the policy, making the nation’s stance on the policy appear volatile and susceptible to party politics to other countries. Though the policy is currently abolished, legislation that restricts funding to maternal health groups continues to be passed. HR 2059, which was passed in 2011, prohibits federal funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a key group supporting international women’s health issues. The Global Democracy Promotion Act, or HR 4879, which has not yet been voted on, would prohibit the application of certain restrictive eligibility requirements to foreign NGOs, effectively abolishing the Mexico City Policy permanently. 


Congress voted to stop funding to the UNFPA on the basis of budgetary reasons; the funding cut would save $400 million over 10 years. Furthermore, according to a recent poll, 59 percent of Americans would support cuts to foreign aid. However, that relatively small portion of American appropriations could positively impact thousands of women. Healthy women have the capabilities to build stronger communities and increase female presence in the workforce which can often shrink due to poor family planning. By increasing the economic opportunities for women, a country’s economic viability would similarly rise. Economic viability is strongly linked to a country’s stability and security. As the world’s population climbs past 7 billion, the UNFPA develops strategies to address reproductive health, gender equality and population. Protecting NGOs that provide family planning initiatives would help to control excessive population growth by limiting the number of unwanted pregnancies and births. When the gag rule was in effect in sub-Saharan Africa, NGOs that were previously performing abortions were also the primary providers of family planning services and when funding cuts closed those clinics, women lost access to contraceptives. Furthermore, increasing maternal care would help the quality of life for women in countries with poor maternal health. By improving maternal health care now, and putting these institutions in place, the US will save future foreign aid funds. The US has a moral responsibility as the world’s largest foreign aid donor to uphold its standard of bettering the countries it is involved with. 

Next Steps 

Implementation of the Mexico City Policy has historically switched as the parties change between each presidential administration. Before the 2012 election, Congress needs to pass the Global Democracy Promo- tion Act to prevent the Mexico City Policy from being reinstated if President Obama is defeated. Since the gag rule increases rates of abortions, the GOP-dominated Congress should have an incentive to keep it abolished. Furthermore, the Global Democracy Promotion Act would improve national security in fraught nations such as Afghanistan with American military presence. Congress should also reapprove aid to the UNFPA by overturning HR 2059, continuing support at the previous levels, if not higher. The President and the Secretary of State should create a foreign maternal health task force, headed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to help correctly channel aid to community-based NGOs and establish beneficial midwifery programs in countries with demonstrated need. Given its expertise, the UNFPA should be responsible for helping the U.S. investigate which foreign agencies to fund.