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Dear EarthTalk: Global population numbers continue to rise, as does the poverty, suffering and environmental degradation that goes with it. Has the U.S., under Obama, increased or at least restored its family planning aid to developing countries that was cut when the Bush Administration first took office?  -- T. Healy, via e-mail
The short answer is yes. President Obama is much more interested in family planning around the world than his predecessor ever was. One of Obama’s first acts upon assuming office in 2009 was the restoration of funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). George W. Bush had withheld some $244 million in aid to the UNFPA over the previous seven years. UNFPA works with developing countries around the world to “reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.”
Reinstated U.S. funding will help the agency pursue its goals of universal access to reproductive health services, universal primary education and closing of the gender gap in education, reducing maternal and infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and decreasing HIV infection rates.

Along with restoring UNFPA funding, Obama also overturned the so-called “Global Gag Rule” that prohibited groups funded by the U.S. Agency in International Development (USAID) from using any government or non-government funds for “providing advice, counseling or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available.” Foreign nonprofits were already not allowed to use U.S. funds to pay for abortions, but the Global Gag Rule—first instituted as the ‘Mexico City Policy’ in 1984 by the Reagan White House, then overturned by Clinton and later reinstated by George W. Bush—went further by restricting the free speech rights of government grantees and stifling public debate on the contentious topic. Foreign NGOs that accept U.S. funding still cannot perform abortions, but can discuss the options openly with the families they serve.

“For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us,” said Barack Obama upon overturning the policy as one of his first acts in office. “It is time that we end the politicization of this issue.”

Of course, advocates for increased family planning are pressuring the Obama administration to step up its efforts aboard even more. The Institute of Medicine, one of four government-affiliated nonprofit “academies” of experts, recommended last spring that the U.S. increase its spending on global health by some 50 percent over the $63 billion pledged by the Obama White House over the next six years.

Groups providing family planning services domestically would also like to see the Obama administration step up funding for their programs, not only to improve the quality of life for American families but to save money and reduce abortions as well: A 2009 report by the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute concluded that publicly funded family planning services at both hospitals and non-profit clinics saves taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent by preventing nearly two million pregnancies and 810,000 abortions per year.

CONTACTS: UNFPA,; USAID,; Institute of Medicine,; Guttmacher Institute, (photo credit: CIMMYT/Flickr)

Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had its 40th anniversary in 2010. How effective has the EPA been and what are its biggest challenges today?

-- Bill A., Seattle, WA
By most accounts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which turned 40 in December 2009, has been very effective. The first dedicated national environmental agency of its kind, the EPA has been instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. The EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines.

Several environmental wake-up calls during the 1960s—from revelations about the hazards of pesticides to smog causing respiratory problems to rivers catching on fire as they flowed through industrial areas—set the stage for the creation of EPA in 1970 by the Nixon administration. The agency was charged with overseeing implementation and enforcement of a new raft of laws designed to protect Americans’ air, water and land from the ill effects of pollution, development and urbanization. The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act are early examples of sweeping legislation that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA has also taken up the mantle of helping Americans find and implement remedies for pressing global problems from ozone depletion to climate change.

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership and dialogue on wide range of topics, recently unveiled a list of “10 ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strengthened America over the past 40 years.”
The home runs on the list—which was compiled by a group of more than 20 environmental leaders, including several former EPA officials—include: banning the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating bald eagles and other birds and threatening public health; achieving significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were polluting water sources via acid rain; changing public perceptions of waste, leading to innovations that make use of waste for energy creation and making new products; getting lead out of gasoline; classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, leading to smoking bans in indoor public places; establishing stringent emission standards for pollutants emitted by cars and trucks; regulating toxic chemicals and encouraging the development of more benign chemicals; establishing a national commitment to restore and maintain the safety of fresh water, via the Clean Water Act; promoting equitable environmental protection for minority and low-income citizens; and increasing public information and communities’ “right to know” what chemicals and/or pollutants they may be exposed to in their daily lives.
As to the EPA’s priorities now under administrator Lisa Jackson, climate change is high atop the agency’s agenda, as are further improving air quality, assuring the safety of chemicals used in everyday products, protecting increasingly compromised waterways and coastal areas, building stronger state and tribal partnerships, and expanding protection for underrepresented communities. Any number of potential hurdles—from an unfriendly Congress to lack of White House resolve to public apathy, let alone future natural and man-made disasters that divert attention and resources—could hamper the agency’s progress.

CONTACTS: EPA,; Aspen Institute,
(photo credit:
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe:; Request a Free Trial Issue: / Issue 118 - September 9715
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