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What’s undermining Obama’s global health project

September 1, 2011 Leave a comment

GlobalPost
2011 Aug 25
United States President Barack Obama set up the Global Health Initiative to take a more comprehensive approach to improving health care in developing nations. In particular, his administration has given great weight to saving the lives of women and to supporting countries’ priorities in health care.
But there’s one exception: abortion.
In Nepal, that exclusion is in plain view, and many say the lack of support disregards evidence that safe abortions can save women’s lives. Nearly all experts here — with the notable exception of those employed by the U.S. government — publicly state that the best way to improve maternal health is by offering a wide range of services that includes more awareness about and access to safe abortion.
In a long-standing U.S. law, stretching back nearly 40 years, Congress has prevented any foreign aid for abortions.
The politics in Washington around the issue of funding abortion have become so heated in recent months that many global health supporters on Capitol Hill won’t even talk about family planning services because so many conservatives falsely equate it with abortion.
Anti-abortion advocates have accused Obama and his administration of using the GHI as part of a larger strategy to link abortion rights to universal access to reproductive health. An article in the New American last year by senior editor William F. Jasper argues that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used “‘reproductive health’ and other similar code words… in attempts to camouflage policies that promoted abortion.”
Clinton’s State Department has dismissed such claims and stressed that U.S.-funded programs through the GHI are simply trying to offer comprehensive reproductive health within the accepted health practices of the host countries, including saving a woman’s life if she suffered an unsafe abortion and working on family planning issues that adhere to the accepted health practices of the host country.
Some 7,000 miles from Washington and far from the charged debate around international aid and the question of abortion, there is a more pointed question in the villages of Nepal. That is, whether the unyielding U.S. policy against funding abortions is hurting its efforts to improve health care?
Some in Nepal say it does. U.S. officials say that’s not so.
Anne Peniston, the GHI Field Deputy in Nepal, said the best way to improve maternal health in Nepal is by providing more access to family planning services.
She cited a 2010 study published in the British health journal The Lancet, in which the four main drivers of maternal mortality were total fertility, per capita income, maternal education, and skilled birth attendance. Abortion, she noted, was not in the top four.
“Abortion should not be used as a method of family planning in any case,” she said. “It’s too risky for a woman’s health.”
But inside a primary healthcare center in Terai, Nepal’s plains region that runs along the border with India, a program that provides safe abortions is considered an integral part of maternal health.

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