Abortion should not be confused with women’s healthcare, philanthropist Melinda Gates wrote on June 2 in a blog post applauded by pro-lifers around the world.
Gates, a long-time supporter of international women’s health, wrote the comments following a two week trip to Geneva, London, Berlin, and Toronto. Gates and her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have declined to fund abortion through their philanthropic organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Instead, the organization focuses on making contraceptives available to 120 million poor women.
“We should provide all women the information and tools to time and space their pregnancies in a safe and healthy way that works for them,” Gates wrote. “This approach is simple, it works, and it saves lives. The question of abortion should be dealt with separately.”
Abortion advocates criticized Gates’ position, claiming the Gate’s Foundation ignores high mortality rates caused by unsafe abortions. “Making abortion safe, legal and affordable is a necessary part of a clear and consistent message to women and their communities,” Sally Kohn wrote in a column on the liberal news commentary website The Daily Beast. “Anything short is a mixed message tinged with fear—that we only support your reproductive freedom if you don’t get pregnant.”
But Gates argues that, unlike abortion, global consensus exists over contraceptives’ role in promoting reproductive health and breaking poverty cycles. The abortion debate interferes with this “lifesaving consensus,” she wrote. “Conflating these issues will slow down progress for tens of millions of women.”
Gate’s visit to Toronto corresponded with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s May 29 announcement that Canada’s promised $3.2 billion in foreign aid for maternal and child health would not fund abortions. Domestically, Canada has not instituted abortion restrictions since its Supreme Court struck down the country’s abortion ban in 1988.
Harper told The Globe and Mail that including abortion aid would undermine efforts to “build broad public and international consensus for saving the lives of mothers and babies. You cannot do that if you introduce that other issue.” Abortion creates conflict not only in donor countries but also in recipient countries where the practice may be illegal, he said.
Like Canada, the United States also excludes abortion funding from its foreign aid through the Helms amendment, enacted shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. Since then, different presidential administrations have interpreted the amendment to allow funding for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that offer abortion services. While the last three Republican administrations banned funding abortion services through NGOs, the Clinton and Obama administrations both reversed the bans. President Barack Obama reinstated the funding during the opening week of his first term.
Despite the amendment loophole, many want it overturned altogether. Representatives from organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and National Coalition for American Nuns sent a letter May 14 asking Obama to use his executive authority to “end the longstanding misinterpretation of the Helms amendment, which in current practice denies women and girls access to safe abortion services even in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.”
But Gates sees abortion funding as a step backward for promoting maternal health. “I am focused on one thing: the opportunity to make a difference in tens of millions of women’s lives by giving them access to information and resources they need to plan their families,” she wrote. “We have made such great progress for women on prenatal care, on providing the contraceptives that they want, and on encouraging proper care and nutrition for newborns, and we need to keep moving forward.”