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Rep. Carolyn Maloney Headshot

Waging a Global War FOR Women

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I just returned from the "2012 International Parliamentarians Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action," an international conference in Istanbul focused on the global effort to make life-saving family planning and reproductive health care available to all women around the world. The clear message at the conference was that we absolutely know what needs to be done. The question is, "will we do it?"

I am happy to report that the world is moving swiftly forward on this critically important agenda. Perversely, some legislators here in the U.S. are fighting the tide of history and working to roll back our commitments to help women and girls meet their reproductive health needs here and abroad.

First the good and inspiring news. More than 400 parliamentarians and delegates from 110 countries, including my colleague Rep. Jan Schakowsky and I, convened in Istanbul and reaffirmed our commitment to meet the goals of the 1994 Cairo International Conference in Population and Development. These goals include access to reproductive and sexual health services including family planning, reduction of infant and child mortality, reduction of maternal mortality, and universal education for boys and girls by 2015.

The 1994 "Cairo Consensus" envisions that rich countries will help poorer countries meet these needs, but it is not a free ride for anyone. In fact, developing countries, understanding the urgency of these issues, have agreed to provide fully two-thirds of the money needed to meet these goals. And why not? For every dollar developing country governments spend on meeting the unmet need for family planning they save $1.40 in maternal and newborn health care costs.

But this is not primarily about money. It is about women's lives. Tewodros Melesse, the Director-General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation which works in 153 countries around the globe, highlighted the cost of inaction on the ICPD agenda. He said, "While maternal deaths have fallen by 47 percent since 1990, women in sub-Saharan Africa still have a 1 in 39 lifetime risk of dying due to pregnancy related causes."

Fully meeting the unmet need for family planning services would result in global unintended pregnancies dropping from 75 million to 22 million. This would result in 25 million fewer abortions, 22 million fewer unplanned births, and 680,000 fewer deaths among women and newborns. This is a goal we should all be able to rally around.

With the world's population hitting 7 billion last year and the new challenges posed by the largest generation of young people in world history these goals are more relevant than ever. Eighteen-year-old American Alex Wirth got a standing ovation when he called for a focus on both youth outreach and engagement. He said, "Half the people in the world are under the age of twenty-five... We need a generation that understands the importance of these issues and one that is willing to make them a voting issue."

Nowhere is the electoral message more important than right here in the United States. Inexplicably, as the rest of the world makes great efforts to provide family planning and reproductive health care for women everywhere, some in the U.S. Congress are seeking to go backwards.

U.S. government support for international family planning programs has been uneven and unfortunately depends on who wins the presidency and who gets elected to Congress. Today, these challenges are being mounted primarily by the Republican-led House, which seeks to impede progress on myriad issues for a combination of political, ideological, and fiscal reasons.

There have always been opponents to women's rights and even contraception in the ranks of America's elected leaders, but in the last two years these opponents have proliferated and seem to be competing with each other to propose and enact even more harmful legislation and rules against women both in the U.S. and overseas.

In the past 18 months, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to eliminate funding to domestic reproductive health programs, to allow employers to unilaterally remove contraception coverage from women's health insurance plans, and to slash funding for international family planning while eliminating funding for the United Nations Population Fund. In 2011, states enacted 135 new reproductive healthcare laws ranging from personhood amendments, to transvaginal ultrasounds as a prerequisite to receiving an abortion, to frontal attacks on contraception.

If there is one bright spot in this scenario it is that the truth about our opponent's agenda is now crystal clear. In the past, opponents of reproductive health and family planning for women claimed that their goal was to end access to abortion. Today it is clear that a primary goal of these individuals now and in the past is actually to end access to contraception for women. It is staggering to think that the issue of women's access to contraception is still even remotely in the forum of public debate in the year 2012.

Since the 1960s, the U.S. has been the global leader in advancing access to voluntary family planning and reducing maternal and child mortality. The U.S. must look beyond those who seek to fight the long decided question of whether women should have access to contraception and reaffirm our commitment to the ongoing global movement to make family planning, education and safe motherhood available to women regardless of their location or level of wealth.

Remarks of Rep. Maloney before the "2012 International Parliamentarians Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action" can be viewed here.