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Obama’s Trip to Africa: Missed Opportunity Before It Even Began

This week, President Obama will embark on his fourth visit to Africa. In many respects, this is a historic trip. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia, as well as the African Union headquarters, and this is his first visit to Kenya during his presidency. Unfortunately, it appears this trip will be rife with missed opportunities.

Obama’s limited time in Africa means he will miss the chance to hear from U.S. partners who are implementing USAID-funded global health programs, including providers delivering quality care to millions in need. He will not hear directly from them about their funding needs or how U.S. policy restrictions needlessly prohibit access to information and care. He will miss the opportunity to hear from the very people—the women, men, and youth—who depend on these programs for access to vital services, including contraceptive services. He will not hear, in some instances, how U.S. policy stands between them and essential, often life-saving, medical care. The stakes are too high for the president to miss these opportunities because access to sexual and reproductive healthcare is not a luxury—it is a human right.

USAID’s portfolio in Ethiopia and Kenya are some of the largest and most complex in all of Africa, including robust family planning and reproductive health programs. The President needs these types of site visits to truly see how U.S. government funding works to improve service delivery at the facility and community level, reduce unmet need, and integrate family planning interventions into a wide array of health services. Most importantly, such visits would demonstrate the need that remains—both in increased funding and strengthened U.S. policies.

Kenya and Ethiopia are among the 24 USAID priority countries where 70 percent of worldwide maternal deaths occur, and half of the unmet need for family planning is found. An estimated 225 million women in developing countries want to delay or prevent pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. Yet, the President’s annual request for U.S. funding for family planning and reproductive health activities falls far short of our global fair share. Additionally, while we have nearly halved maternal mortality over the past two and a half decades, 289,000 women worldwide still die each year as a result of pregnancy and childbirth—13 percent of which result from unsafe abortion.

These are not mere statistics.  In choosing not to prioritize visiting health facilities, the president has also chosen to miss the opportunity to meet the real women, families and communities whose lives are irrevocably affected when access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care—including safe abortion is not a reality. It is unfortunate that the president will not use his upcoming trip to continue to build his global health legacy by advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. He has chosen not to see the ways in which reproductive health is connected to health, well being—and long term economic prosperity.

In some ways it makes sense. If Obama had met these women, he could not continue to refuse to correct a longstanding misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment—an already harmful law—by prohibiting U.S. government funds from being used to provide safe abortion, even when a woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

He would understand that access to safe abortion is a right, a moral imperative, and a matter of public health. He would see, finally, that if the goal of U.S. humanitarian assistance is to improve the health, safety and dignity of all people, denying safe abortion access to a woman who has been raped, or whose life is in danger because of a pregnancy undermines these values.

This piece was originally published on The Hill’s Congress blog.

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