Bush stonewalls release of family-planning study

A State Department team investigated oft-refuted charges raised by a far-right group that a U.N. family-planning agency abetted forced abortions in China. But Bush won't release the study -- or $34 million in aid.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published July 11, 2002 9:36PM (EDT)

Early this year President George W. Bush froze $34 million that Congress had appropriated for the United Nations Population Fund, because a far-right antiabortion group has accused the organization of being complicit in forced abortions in China. The explosive charges by the Population Research Institute have been disproved by numerous investigators, including a delegation headed by Conservative British M.P. Edward Leigh, an antiabortion Catholic.

Still, after leaders of the PRI testified before Congress, the White House insisted on sending its own State Department team to look into the allegations. The team returned from China in May -- but Bush is refusing to say what it found.

The Washington Post reported that a White House memo said that the State Department team "found the U.N. agency had no direct knowledge or involvement in China's coercive policies but that these practices did go on in some of the Chinese counties where the agency operated." The Post also reported rumors that regardless of what the team found, Bush plans to permanently cut off American support for the Population Fund, which provides reproductive services -- but not abortion -- to women in 142 countries.

Now Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley, both D-N.Y., are asking the Senate to subpoena the State Department report, writing, "The President has put the lives of millions of women and children at risk, and we believe we must do everything in our power to reverse his tragic decision."

In a letter to Maloney, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, undersecretary-general for the Population Fund, said the loss of America's promised $34 million will force the agency to curtail programs that train birth attendants in Kenya and Algeria, help prevent AIDS in Haiti, and provide HIV-testing kits and equipment for safe blood transfusion in Vietnam, among other initiatives.

Officials for the Population Fund never expected the situation to become this dire.

Of course, they were angered by how seriously the Bush administration took the Population Research Institute, since the outfit is merely a small spinoff of Human Life International, a far-right antiabortion group founded by Paul Marx, a priest who blames Jews for the abortion "holocaust." As the PRI's president wrote in a fundraising letter, the group's aim is to "drive the final nail into the coffin of U.N. Population Fund abortionists."

Yet people at the fund believed that once they were vindicated by the State Department team, the administration would have to restore the $34 million appropriation. After all, Colin Powell himself had asked Congress to appropriate most of that money, citing the agency's "invaluable work." As Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., says, "If the administration's conclusion is that UNFPA is in violation of the law, that will be contrary to the legal conclusion they made in February of 2001, and the UNFPA is doing the same thing today as it was then."

"I'm confident that there is absolutely no UNFPA involvement in or knowledge of coercion in the counties we work in, in China," says Stirling Scruggs, the agency's director of information. "I don't see how [the State Department] can find anything but that. I thought if the report said the UNFPA is not involved in support for coercion that [Bush] would release the funds."

Of course, neither Scruggs nor anyone outside the administration knows what exactly the team found in China. A State Department official said only that the report was complete and "at this point no final decision has been made about whether or not to fund UNFPA. We hope to announce our determination by mid-July."

Congressional supporters of the agency say they can't wait that long, because one of the few tools they have to force Bush to release the money is the Supplemental Appropriations bill, which is being negotiated right now. An amendment in the Senate version would mandate that Bush fund the UNFPA unless he could show that doing so would violate the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, a 1985 law that prohibits the government from supporting any program that, "as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or sterilization."

That's why Maloney and Crowley wrote to Sens. Tom Daschle, Patrick Leahy and Joseph Biden last week, asking them to subpoena the report. "This Administration is clearly delaying their plan to invoke Kemp-Kasten until after Congress will have completed the FY02 Supplemental Appropriations bill and will be unable to effect change on this tragic decision." They urged a subpoena "so that we can review the findings ourselves and have the necessary documents as we go to Conference on the FY02 Supplemental Appropriations bill."

But passing a bill mandating that Bush release the money might not be enough. After all, on June 5, Bush threatened to veto any such bill.

If that happens, there may not be any way to preserve the U.S.'s contribution to the Population Fund. "Sadly, the Bush Administration seems to be making harsh political decisions on the backs of our world's poorest and neediest citizens -- women and children," Maloney and Crowley wrote. "In fact, [departing Bush advisor] Karen Hughes isn't even out the door and Karl Rove has eliminated any appearance of helping women."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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China United Nations