There They Go Again

It's that time of year again. Every spring the White House gives its annual sop to the right-wing by withholding funds from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). When it comes to the UNFPA, a long-time target of anti-family planning zealots, the administration for the third year in a row has chosen ideology and politics over research and public health.

Last January, Congress authorized and appropriated $34 million for the UNFPA, a multilateral agency that works with governments and NGOs in over 140 countries. The agency helps women avoid unwanted pregnancies, give birth safely, and protect themselves from violence and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

One of those countries is China, where UNFPA is implementing a pilot project in 32 counties designed to shift the country away from its reliance on abortion and state control to a policy of high quality family planning and individual reproductive choice. Results have been encouraging. In those counties, the ratio of abortions to live births declined by 30 percent. Furthermore, according to the State Department's 2004 Human Rights Report, 800 other Chinese counties are now trying to replicate the UNFPA model, discarding their targets and quota systems in favor of quality of care and informed choice.

In 2002, the Bush administration withdrew all funding for the UNFPA, claiming that its work in China violated the Kemp-Kasten amendment, which prohibits foreign aid funding for any organization that "supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization." In 2003, the administration again refused to release any funds, and today, it did so again.

The interpretation flies in the face of four, separate investigations of the UNFPA's program in China:

  • In 2003 a team of nine religious and faith-based organization leaders and ethicists, representing Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant groups, conducted a mission to China. They concluded that the UNFPA is not involved in any forced abortion or involuntary sterilization and is a catalyst for positive change.
  • In 2002, the administration sent its own hand-picked Blue Ribbon Panel to investigate allegations of UNFPA involvement in coercive abortion in China. The team found "no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion" and recommended that the "$34 million which has already been appropriated be released to UNFPA."
  • Also in 2002, the United Kingdom sent an all-party group of three Parliamentarians who determined that the UNFPA in China was a "force for good."
  • In 2001 the United Nations sent a high-level delegation to China that came back with praise for the UNFPA and a recommendation for continued support.

The UNFPA was founded in 1969, with strong leadership and support from the United States. It is funded by voluntary contributions from member states and depends on the global community to support its wide-range of life-saving programs. Today, more than 130 countries make contributions; leading donors include the Netherlands, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden. Even smaller countries like Afghanistan, Armenia and Somalia value the role of UNFPA enough to make modest contributions. But not the United States, which once again has isolated itself from its closest allies and the rest of the world.

The $34 million that the president refuses to release could prevent two million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal and 77,000 infant and child deaths. These funds would strengthen current UNFPA programs like those to reduce maternal mortality in Afghanistan, improve adolescent health in Vietnam, and send desperately needed medical supplies to displaced Sudanese refugees.

This week, Congress and the White House have been nattering on about the dangers of gay marriage to children and families in America. Meanwhile, as a result of its decision to withhold funding for the UNFPA, the White House will leave millions of women around the world without access to the services they need to protect their children and families. The administration's stubborn refusal to consider the evidence, work with international institutions, and see beyond its own political blinders will cost thousands of innocent lives. So much for compassionate conservatism.

Shira Saperstein is a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Shira Saperstein