An international conference, alarmed that U.S. President Donald Trump's policies could push women "into the Dark Ages," has raised nearly $200-million (U.S.) from Canada and other countries to help replace Mr. Trump's planned cuts to contraception and family planning programs.
The Canadian government announced that it will contribute $20-million (Canadian) to the hastily organized fund. The money will go to five agencies to pay for contraception supplies, counselling, safe abortion services in countries where abortion is legal and other family planning programs, primarily in Africa and other regions of the developing world.
Within days of taking office in late January, Mr. Trump announced that he would eliminate U.S. financing for any international group that provides information about abortion. The policy, widely known as the "global gag rule," is expected to eliminate $600-million in U.S. funds for contraception and family planning.
If the world ignored these cuts, the "purely ideological decision" of the Trump administration could push women and girls "into the Dark Ages," said Alexander De Croo, Deputy Premier of Belgium, host of the fundraising conference in Brussels on Thursday.
The U.S. cuts have sparked widespread concern that a growing shortage of contraceptive supplies in the developing world will lead to more unwanted pregnancies, rising health dangers for women and an increased number of unsafe abortions from clandestine providers. Studies have found that similar U.S. cuts in the past have led to an increase in abortions, often done illegally in dangerous conditions.
Analysts already estimate that 225 million women worldwide are unable to get the modern contraception that they want, because of poverty, supply shortages, cultural pressures and other factors. This, in turn, leads to an estimated 22 million unsafe abortions annually, one of the world's leading causes of maternal deaths.
"All women have the right to choose whether and when they want to have children, and how many," said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada's International Development Minister, in announcing the $20-million in new funds.
Speaking from the Brussels conference, Ms. Bibeau told reporters that the international pledges of about $190-million were "encouraging" but could increase. The fundraising conference was organized hastily on just three weeks notice, she said.
"This is only the beginning," she said. "Stay tuned. There aren't so many governments that can make significant commitments with only three weeks notice. This is really a first step."
Canada's planned new foreign-aid strategy will include a focus on women's empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights, Ms. Bibeau said.
About 50 governments attended the Brussels conference on Thursday. Contributions of about $20-million were promised by Canada, Sweden and Finland, while earlier pledges came from Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands. Private donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are promising tens of millions of dollars in additional funds.
The cuts by the Trump administration "threaten to suspend a large number of projects helping to defend the health of millions of girls, even helping to save their lives," said Finnish Foreign Trade and Development Minister Kai Mykkanen.
Canadian activists said the money announced by Ms. Bibeau will help, but it is not enough. "Trump's policy represents a gross violation of women's rights and runs counter to the global trend of liberalizing abortion laws that has resulted in significant decreases in unsafe abortions," said Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, one of two civil-society groups in the Canadian delegation at the Brussels conference.
He noted that the Trump policy was deliberately designed to be more far-reaching than previous "gag orders" under earlier Republican administrations. This one could jeopardize more than $9-billion in U.S. spending on all global health programs, not just family planning programs.
Some critics have suggested that the Canadian policy would encourage abortion in regions such as Africa, but Ms. Bibeau emphasized that the policy would only support abortion in countries where it is legal – a small minority of African countries.
"Sexual and reproductive health and rights is a fundamental right," she said. "It starts with sexual education for boys and girls, family planning, access to contraception. And where it's legal, it also includes abortion. The idea is really to give women a choice."