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In Memoriam: Babatunde Osotimehin

The world has lost a champion for women’s health globally with the death of the UNFPA director and former Nigerian Health Minister.

June 10, 2017

From conference at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House in April, 2017.

During my five-year tenure as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration in the Obama Administration, we came to rely more and more on the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to help families caught up in crises.

The Fund has played a leading role in providing health care to and training midwives to help women fleeing conflict in places like Syria, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic.

What the UN Population Fund does

UNFPA-supported programs help mothers deliver healthy babies in the midst of disasters, prevent and respond to violence against women and girls, repair obstetric fistula and argue against female genital mutilation.

Unfortunately, this UN agency has been dealt a series of blows by the Trump Administration, starting with a decision to stop nearly $33 million in annual U.S. contributions to UNFPA.

This cut was undertaken based on the widely discredited claim that it supports coercive abortions and involuntary sterilization in China as part of that country’s one-child policy.

Propaganda and women’s global health

This assertion was rejected by an expert group during the Bush administration, in Colin Powell’s time as U.S. Secretary of State.

And China no longer promotes a one-child policy – something President Trump might have learned if he had asked the Chinese President when he entertained him at Mar-a-Lago.

Nonetheless, it has become a Washington political ritual for Republican presidents to cut UNFPA funding automatically at the start of their terms.

This political ritual represents a complete about-face in Republican policies from 1969 when UNFPA was founded – with support from the Administration of Republican President Richard M. Nixon.

Similar to the global gag rule

The de-funding of UNFPA is different from, but consistent with, the similarly dangerous Trump Administration’s re-imposition of the Mexico City Policy, the so-called “Global Gag Rule.”

It aims to withhold U.S. funding from organizations that counsel women about abortions, even if they provide such counseling with monies raised from non-U.S. sources.

The practical result of this measure is that it either prevents women from being able to talk freely to their doctors to learn about the reproductive health services available to them — or it shrinks already tight clinic budgets in developing nations. Neither is a welcome development.

It would be much more helpful if an effort were made to get much needed medical services to more women, no matter where they live or how poor they are, thus saving lives.

R.I.P. Babatunde Osotimehin

However, de-funding was not the only blow dealt to the UNFPA. Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, its wise and caring Executive Director, died on June 4.

A Nigerian physician with a UK PhD, a public health expert who had battled the spread of HIV/AIDS and a former Nigerian Minister of Health, Babatunde was outspoken in calling for more to be done to protect and help women, girls and youth and in doing so stood up for human rights and dignity for all.

Babatunde had a sophisticated understanding of how population trends were resulting in the growth of megacities. He could describe challenges in reaching vulnerable people, such as the elderly.

He also decried the xenophobia and insecurity that migrants, including refugees, are facing as they move in search of opportunities.

Above all, Babatunde had a tender heart and cared deeply for the welfare of adolescent girls, including those held captive by Boko Haram insurgents in Northeastern Nigeria.

When I saw him last in late April 2017, I asked Babatunde how UNFPA had dealt with the loss of U.S. government funding after the Trump cuts. He replied that he had seen it coming and had prepared the agency to deal with the shortfall.

He and I shared a sense of weariness that political gamesmanship in Washington, D.C. achieved little at a time when so many are in need.

Getting back to what really matters

UNFPA has adopted the following tag line to describe its work: “Delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential fulfilled.”

Who could argue with that?

In memory of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, we should all redouble our efforts to rally behind UNFPA and promote sensible healthcare for women and young people.


Babatunde Osotimehin, the UN Population Fund director and a champion for women’s health, has passed away.

The Trump Administration has defunded the UN Population Fund based on discredited conservative views about China.

It is a political ritual in Washington for Republican presidents to cut UNFPA funding at the start of their terms.