Chrissy Houlahan Introduces ‘Support UNFPA Funding’ Act: The U.S.’s “First Line of Defense is Taking Care of People”

The United Nations Population Fund, established in 1969, works across 150 countries to provide reproductive and sexual health care to more than 20 million women and girls a year.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan speaking to reporters on March 14, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa. (Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr)

Last week, Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) re-introduced the Support UNFPA Funding Act, first introduced in 2019 during the 116th Congress. The bill, which currently has 126 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and has been endorsed by 98 NGOs, reaffirms the United States’ commitment to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and gender equality around the world and authorizes an annual contribution to the UNFPA for five years when passed. 

The UNFPA, established in 1969, works across 150 countries to provide reproductive and sexual health care to more than 20 million women and girls a year. Since its inception, the funds goal has been to achieve the three zeros: “zero unmet needs for family planning, zero preventable maternal deaths and zero harmful practices and gender-based  violence;” a goal the United States has been an intermittent funder of, dependent on who was in the White House. 

During 19 of the past 36 fiscal years, the president in power has withheld funding the UNFPA, citing the Kemp-Kasten Amendment. The provision, passed in 1985, prevents the U.S. from funding for organizations or programs that provide abortion overseas. Despite the UNFPA refuting it provides, performs or promotes abortion, funding for a common-sense and effective program has become a divisive and controversial line in the sand in American politics—a reality, Houlahan is fighting against, who has said of the act, “This should not be controversial; this is literally women’s health and the ability of women to have agency over their health.” 

Women continue to make up the majority of individuals below the poverty line, one in three women and girls experience gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive health problems remain a leading cause of death and disability for women in developing countries. Women’s continued inequality globally is a humanitarian crisis. Funding the UNFPA will not only help to address the crisis; it is also an effective national security strategy for the U.S. 

One of the many benefits of the Support UNFPA Funding Act, Houlahan argues, is the potential for peace. “When we talk about bringing better national security and peace to regions and to the world you have to first be talking about bringing health to women and educational opportunities and economic opportunities to them and their families.”

The humanitarian approach to U.S. national security and foreign policy has gained traction as the realities of our globalized world set in. In a 2017 op-ed, Admiral Mike Mullen and General James Jones wrote, “Strategic development assistance is not charity; it is an essential modern tool of U.S. national security.” Or as Houlahan put it: “Our first line of defense is taking care of people.”

The phrase “when women succeed the world succeeds,” has become a common refrain during the past decade. Despite this, programs that address women’s unmet needs continue to be underfunded, and are often the first on the chopping block during times of crisis; but, internally Houlahan’s office jokingly refers to the Support UNFPA Funding Act as “the little bill that could.”

With commitments from the Biden administration and previous bipartisan support from Sens. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Collins (R-Maine), not only can the act pass the House of Representatives—it is likely to have a companion bill pass the Senate as well. 

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Maura is RepresentWomen’s outreach and communications coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in social anthropology. To hear more from Maura follow her on Twitter, @further_maura.