Bush Stomps on Reproductive Rights

President George W. Bush delighted his conservative Christian supporters Monday by denying $34 million dollars in congressional funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The decision, which had been rumored for weeks, was strongly denounced by women's and family planning groups as well as a number of lawmakers who support UNFPA. "This decision is an embarrassment and a travesty," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy who, as chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, approved $50 million in funding for UNFPA in the Senate version of the 2003 foreign aid bill. "It flies in the face of the facts, of the law, and of the intent of Congress."

The State Department spokesman Richard Boucher cited the Fund's support for Chinese agencies that practice coercive abortions or sterilizations as the primary reason for the decision. He cited a 1985 law that bans the U.S. aid money from "any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the People's Republic of China."

Boucher said the money will be diverted to population and child survival programs operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) instead.

The Bush administration decided to cut all funding even though a special State Department delegation found no evidence that UNFPA has "knowingly supported or participated in" coercive abortions or sterilizations. "The administration's own delegation recommend(ed) that the U.S. contribution to UNFPA be released," said Terry Bartlett of Population Action International (PAI), a research and advocacy group here. "Domestic politics have prevented UNFPA from receiving its $34 million, and it is the world's women -- and their families -- who will pay the price."

The response from UNFPA was swift and uncharacteristically blunt. "UNFPA has not, does not and will not ever condone or support coercive activities of any kind, anywhere," UNFPA director Thoraya Obaid said. "Women and children will die because of this decision."

"Domestic politics have prevented UNFPA from receiving its $34 million, and it is the world's women -- and their families -- who will pay the price."

Obaid said the loss of U.S. funding -- which represents 12.5 percent of UNFPA's total budget -- will severely hamper its operations. Agency officials estimate that the decision will undermine the agency's ability to prevent the deaths of 4,700 mothers and 77,000 children under the age of 5 over the next year. The decision could also jeopardize the agency's international AIDS prevention program, which has received high marks from public-health experts. The total UNFPA annual budget, which relies almost entirely on voluntary contributions, is around $270 million, of which less than two percent is spent in China.

Obaid noted that the administration could have -- as Congress has insisted in the past -- deducted the $3.5 million UNFPA spends on China each year and provided the balance to the agency in the form of a special fund to ensure that none of it was spent on China. "We could have done the same this year, which could have allowed U.S. taxpayer dollars to provide life-saving services in the other 141 countries where we work," she said.

The latest decision also flies in the face of previous White House decisions regarding the UN agency. Bush himself asked Congress to approve $25 million for UNFPA in his budget proposal last year. As recently as last November, the administration gave UNFPA a $600,000 grant for its work in Afghanistan, in addition to more than the $20 million congressionally approved funds. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently endorsed the agency's "invaluable work" in congressional testimony earlier this year.

Funding for overseas population programs, however, has become the most controversial item in the annual foreign aid bill ever since Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Last year, a stalemate between anti-abortion forces in the House and a Senate majority that wanted to award more than the $25 million requested by the administration held up passage of the foreign aid bill for weeks. Powell had to personally intervene to broker a deal under which Washington would provide up to $34 million to UNFPA this year.

Under pressure from Christian right groups -- which appear to have a direct line to Bush political supremo Karl Rove -- the president ordered the State Department to investigate charges made by an obscure group called the Population Research Institute (PRI) that UNFPA was financing coercive abortions and sterilization in China.

PRI, which is headed by a controversial anthropologist named Steven Mosher, is a spin-off of an extremist anti-abortion group called Human Life International (HLI). HLI founder, Benedictine priest Paul Marx, once blamed American Jews for "establishing and defending the efficient destruction of more than 30 million pre-born children in this country," according to a recent investigative article by Salon. Mosher himself was dismissed from Stanford University for "illegal and seriously unethical conduct" regarding his fieldwork on family planning in southern China in the 1980s. He has also written a number of anti-Beijing books, including "Hegemon: China's Plan to Dominate Asia and the World," and denounced UNFPA as part of a ''New World Order" conspiracy.

The State Department delegation's report exonerating UNFPA was submitted to the White House in late May and promptly referred to Bush's Domestic Policy Council. The council, however, seems to have decided to ignore the report, deciding instead that the president has more to gain from appeasing the Christian right than from fulfilling the Powell-brokered deal.

"How can this administration withhold this funding in good conscience?'' asked Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) Tuesday. "Not only does this decision endanger the lives of poor women and children around the world, it breaks a trust by backtracking on a deal with Congress."

But if Lowey and other UNFPA supporters were downcast, anti-abortion forces were jubilant at the announcement. "UNFPA has been a cheerleader and facilitator for China's birth-quota program, which relies heavily on coerced abortion," said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who led the fight to kill the funding in the House, claimed the president's action would "protect women and children from violence."

But critics say the administration's reasoning -- that funding the UNFPA is equivalent to funding coercive abortions -- is specious and self-serving.

According to Boucher, the final decision was based on UNFPA's support for specific agencies that oversee coercive programs. ''Because money is fungible, ...we won't be giving money to a UN program that then gives money to Chinese agencies that then carry out these coercive abortion programs," he said.

By that logic, critics say, the administration may have to reexamine its support for the World Health Organization in Geneva and even its own bilateral programs with China.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson last month announced $14.8 million in aid for China's Health Ministry as part of a larger bilateral program to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Health Ministry houses the State Family Planning Commission, which both works closely with the UNFPA in China and is slated to take the lead in the country's AIDS campaign.

Boucher, however, declined to speculate on the fate of those funds. "The requirements of the law," he said, "are quite clearly directed at population programs." U.S. anti-AIDS assistance "will be something that will have to be looked at as the money is spent," he said.

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