In August the Prime Minister announced the Government will be increasing its funding for ‘family planning services’ in Africa and Asia, pledging £200 million to the Department for International Development (DFID) for the creation of the Women’s Integrated Sexual Health programme, which aims to increase the number of family planning users, reduce maternal mortality, and improve access to safe abortion.
However a report released on Wednesday by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the watchdog that scrutinises UK aid spending, condemns DFID for its failures to improve maternal health services during similar programmes run between 2011-2015.
According to the report, this was due to an intensive focus on family planning, which includes the provision of contraception and abortion services. During this period, "DFID did not pursue the strengthening of health systems to provide quality maternal care with the same intensity as it did for family planning, nor did it do enough to address the barriers that the poorest women face in accessing health services."
It is perhaps not surprising that DFID is so focused on its family planning initiatives, given that it is a known advocate for abortion and has provided extensive funds of over £163.01 million to Marie Stopes International, one of the world’s largest abortion providers and one of the organisations involved in implementing the WISH programme.
As a “vocal champion of family planning and safe abortion”, for which they are praised in the report, why are DFID not doing more to champion mothers who want to keep their babies?
Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the cause of death of more than 300,000 women each year, and 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries. That’s around 820 women dying each day from preventable causes. This figure is devastating, and it is only made worse when we consider the impact of a mother’s death on the life-expectancy of her newborn baby, and the wellbeing of any existing children who now have to endure the intolerable grief of losing their mother.
According to DFID, effective family planning saves maternal lives by preventing unwanted pregnancies, which reduces the risks associated with pregnancy, abortion and childbirth. However, it is one thing to attempt to save lives through prevention of pregnancy, it is quite another thing to not adequately care for those who are already pregnant.
Whilst DFID did invest in basic health services, some of which contribute to better maternal health, the quality of these services often fell short of their targets. The ICAI report highlights failures such as ‘severe shortages of beds, trained personnel, equipment and supplies’ which meant women were at risk of dying from basic obstetric complications. These include preeclampsia and eclampsia, severe bleeding, and infections. These shortfalls in improving the quality of maternal health provision meant that ‘reductions in maternal mortality were significantly below what they could have been, given the level of investment.’
Although unsafe abortions do undeniably contribute to maternal mortality rates across the developing world, they are only accountable for 7.9% of total mortality. Other causes of mortality account for 65.1% of all maternal deaths, with the most common cause being haemorrhage.
Moreover, the report highlights that the majority of maternal deaths during 2011-2015 actually resulted from intentional pregnancies, not accidental or unintended ones. Thus the provision of family planning services had no effect in preventing these outcomes.
Why are the UK Government using taxpayers’ money to fund programmes that are failing significantly to decrease maternal mortality rates for intentional pregnancies, in favour of preventing or aborting unintended ones? This is contrary to the wishes of two thirds of the UK population: Comres polling in 2017 found that 65% oppose tax payer money going to fund abortions overseas. Rather than ploughing more funds into these services, the Government must scrutinise and review the intentions and outcomes of DFID’s programmes, given the considerable shortcomings this report reveals.
DFID are failing women in developing countries by neglecting to invest in quality maternal health services that these women so desperately need. What is the point in allowing women to ‘plan’ for their families if they may die in the process of trying to start one? Women deserve much, much better than that.
Naomi Marsden - CARE's Early Human Life Policy Officer