Committing to the United Nations

Human Rights

In an apparent effort to convince skeptics of its seriousness about standing together again with the United Nations, the Bush Administration -- with great fanfare -- recently rejoined United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). To make the surprising announcement, Laura Bush was shuttled off to Europe, where she even endured a kiss from French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.

To show its real commitment to the United Nations and the international community, however, the Bush Administration should go further and join once again with the international community in funding international women’s health programs.

For the past two years, the Bush Administration has withheld America’s congressionally-approved contribution of $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is the world's largest international source of funding for population and reproductive health programs. Over 140 nations support UNFPA, including poor countries like Malawi, in southwestern Africa, which gave $3,000 last year.

Bush withheld the US money based on an obscure law that allows the President to de-fund any international organization that supports forced abortions or sterilizations. Under pressure from special interests, he made this decision although his own State Department's investigation concluded that the UNFPA was not involved in any such activities worldwide, including China.

America's abandonment of the UNFPA has created unspeakable tragedy for poor people, particularly women and children, around the world. This year alone, the loss of American dollars resulted in 2 million unwanted pregnancies and the deaths of over 4,500 women and 75,000 infants, mostly during childbirth, according to UNFPA estimates.

The U.S. move, which was applauded by special interests at home, shocked the international community as well as citizens in our own country. Here's one admittedly anecdotal -- but nonetheless amazing -- measure of just how upset our own citizens were at this action so brutally harmful to poor women and their families worldwide.

After the Administration cut the $34 million for UNFPA , I started an e-mail chain letter campaign urging 34 million Americans to donate $1 each to replace the lost $34 million -- and to send a message to the rest of the world that Americans care. Another woman, Jane Roberts, started a similar campaign through letters-to-the-editors of her local newspapers. The idea swept across the Internet and garnered media attention -- and over $1.4 million has been collected, mostly in small contributions.

While my story is an activist's dream, I know it will never move the Administration to re-join the UNFPA. But here's an argument that Bush might listen to: It's in the best interest of American foreign policy objectives, including our Iraq objectives, to fund the UNFPA.

Joining with the UNFPA would help achieve our nation's goals of slowing the spread of AIDS, encouraging sustainable growth, and providing basic health care to the world's poor. The war against poverty and disease worldwide is undeniably linked to the war on terror, as President Bush has himself acknowledged. Inadequate health care and family planning in poor countries spawn the conditions that breed terrorism.

And like the situation in Iraq, America can't go it alone. We simply can't afford to fight the war on poverty by ourselves. Only by joining with our allies will we be able to make the progress that we must make in the name of basic decency and pragmatic self interest.

Even if the Administration disagrees with that logic, I don't understand how it would not agree with this: Our recent re-funding of UNESCO was warmly received internationally, and our pledge to work again with UNFPA would be equally well-received.

In short, it would be excellent PR for America to re-fund the UNFPA, coming at a time when we certainly need it to show the international community that we are serious about working together to address the world's problems.

And the renewed benefit to, among others, poor women living in the poor nations who have had their access to life-giving health services curtailed by our action, would be dearly welcomed.

Lois Abraham is co-founder of 34 Million Friends of the UNFPA.

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