Politics and Global Health

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire has just had a fresh reminder that promoting global health can be politically complicated – and frustrating.

(Daulaire) Any of us who’ve been to enough town meetings have come to appreciate just how important open dialogue and debate are. We may disagree, but we respect each other. That’s what makes democracy work in Vermont, and we should see more of it in other places.

I’ve just returned to Vermont from Washington, D.C. where the Global Health Council held its 31st annual international conference. This year’s conference concerned the health risks facing the billion young people around the world about to become adults – the largest generation in human history.

There were many crucial health issues to be explored, but a lot of attention focused on a concerted effort to keep some viewpoints from being heard at all.

For three decades, this unique gathering of 1500 health professionals from around the world has included active participation and support from the U.S. government. This is after all one of the premiere opportunities to hear from and influence front-line practitioners in the global battle against disease and premature death.

But not this year.

No, a group of abortion opponants had scoured the conference agenda and found among the dozens of sessions in this four-day conference two that they deemed unacceptable.

One included the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, and was focused on the global tragedy of child brides. But UNFPA has angered these activists because it has refused an administration demand that it stop working in China – even though it opposes some of the lamentable policies of the Chinese government that are their target.

The other targeted organization was the International Planned Parenthood Federation. With clinics in over 100 countries, they had been invited to participate in a discussion on how best to prevent AIDS infection in young people. But IPPF has refused to sign the administration’s so-called Mexico City Policy – also known as the Global Gag Rule – that withholds federal funds from any group that has any involvement, anywhere, with abortion, even if it’s just counselling.

Now, I’d note that neither of these sessions involved abortion in any way. But once you’ve been labeled, the views of these ideologues is apparently that you should never be allowed a platform where you can be heard, anytime, anywhere, on any topic.

Imagine if we ran our town meetings that way.

Well, when the uproar began just over a month ago, the three U.S. federal agencies that had planned to sponsor and participate in this conference bowed to political pressure and quickly withdrew. That’s a shame, and not just because of the loss of their funding.

We need debate and discussion on the issues that divide us, particularly on those that can be a matter of life and death. We need to hear different viewpoints, and we need to respect the experiences of those who have actually made things work in difficult circumstances.

So the conference went on as planned, but without the presence of those who will decide on how billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent. And all the world is the poorer for it.

Like the good neighbors at Vermont town meetings, those who did come got a lot of good work done, in part because they agree on the importance of respecting everyone’s right to be heard.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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