A $34 million "political payoff"

President Bush's decision to gut U.N. family-planning funds will appease right-wing hard-liners -- at a cost of thousands of lives.

Published July 24, 2002 12:11AM (EDT)

It's official. George Bush ignored the advice of dozens of experts, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which fights infant mortality, maternal death, AIDS and other scourges in 142 developing countries.

The State Department made the announcement Monday afternoon. It seemed especially humiliating for Colin Powell, who had to defend a decision that contradicts the recommendation of his own staff and everything he himself has ever said about the Population Fund.

The decision drew a furious reaction from congressional Democrats, some of whom said they would seek to restore the funds next year. "This decision is an embarrassment and a travesty," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee.

The State Department team was sent to China this spring to investigate charges by a tiny antiabortion fringe group called the Population Research Institute, which has charged that the U.N. agency is complicit in forced abortion there. Those charges have been at the center of a seven-month battle over the $34 million Congress appropriated to the agency, frozen by Bush at the behest of antiabortion activists. Previously, the administration had said it was holding on to the money pending the report of the State Department team. The report was finished on May 29, but the White House refused to release it until Monday. Now it's clear why.

The report is unequivocal in dismissing the allegations. "We find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the PRC," it says. "We therefore recommend that[the] $34 million which has already been appropriated be released to UNFPA." (Formerly the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, the Population Fund is known by the abbreviation UNFPA.)

Nevertheless, Powell, acting under the White House's orders, wrote a letter to Leahy explaining that the administration was withdrawing funds from agency. "Regardless of the modest size of UNFPA's budget in China or any benefits its programs provide, UNFPA's support of, and involvement in, China's population-planning activities allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion," he wrote in a letter dated July 21. "Therefore, it is not permissible to continue funding UNFPA at this time."

That's quite different from the testimony that Powell submitted in January 2001 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "We recognize that UNFPA does invaluable work through its programs in maternal and child health care, voluntary family planning, screening for reproductive tract cancers, breast-feeding promotion and HIV/AIDS prevention ... We look forward to working with you and your colleagues to secure the funding necessary for UNFPA to continue these activities."

The turnaround is so awkward that advocates for the UNFPA aren't angry at Powell -- they pity him. "I believe that Colin Powell has great integrity," says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood. "How many times can he be marginalized like this before his integrity says it's time to go?"

"The Secretary has been a strong supporter of UNFPA, and I do not hold him responsible for what is clearly a blatantly political decision by the White House," Leahy said in an official statement. "[The decision] flies in the face of the facts, of the law and of the intent of Congress. In calculated pursuit of the politics of abortion, the White House has chosen a course that will mean more abortions."

The Bush administration's move is clearly designed to appease the religious right. Despite its official-sounding name, the Population Research Institute is a small spin-off of Human Life International, an antiabortion group whose founder, Roman Catholic priest Paul Marx, blames Jews for the abortion "holocaust." "American Jews," he wrote in 1993, "have been leaders in establishing and defending the efficient destruction of more than 30 million preborn children in this country."

Just last year, Bush asked Congress to appropriate $25 million for the fund in his budget proposal, and Congress responded by allocating $34 million. But then U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the passionate antiabortion crusader, invited two members of the PRI to testify before Congress. Bush acted solely on their word when he froze the money for the UNFPA and sent the State Department team to China.

The team's findings paralleled the findings of every similar evaluation -- the UNFPA is an effective mainstream health organization. As British antiabortion M.P. Edward Leigh told the Washington Times upon returning from a trip he took to China to investigate the PRI's claims: "There was evidence UNFPA is trying to persuade China away from the program of strict targets and assessments. My personal line is British or U.S. funds should not be used for coercive family planning, and I found no evidence of such practices in China."

But that doesn't matter, because this fight was never really about China. While Bush seems to be in thrall to PRI condemnations of the Population Fund's work with the Chinese Health Ministry, his administration has no problem working with the same ministry when the extreme right isn't looking. On June 28, Secretary Tommy Thompson's Department of Health and Human Services announced a new initiative to work with the Chinese on HIV/AIDS prevention -- a laudable program, but one that proves that cooperation with the Chinese government isn't verboten to Bush.

The problem isn't China -- it is family planning in general, which loud segments of the far-right oppose. For months, those opponents have pressured Bush to use the UNFPA issue to prove his antiabortion commitment. The Population Research Institute mobilized its followers to "drive the final nail into the coffin of U.N. Population Fund abortionists." But the fund doesn't have anything to do with abortion -- the U.N. prohibits it. It does promote contraception, distributing condoms in AIDS-stricken part of Africa and morning-after pills (as well as safe delivery kits) to women in refugee camps. That's the real reason for the Population Research Institute's ire. The organization's president, Steven Mosher, has written that family planning is part of a "New World Order" conspiracy, an "assault on human dignity" that "frees the proposed world government to selectively reduce the population of the world to a manageable number."

Bush probably doesn't believe this, but it's convenient for him to capitulate. "The president is ignoring the will of Congress, his own fact-finding team, and his own secretary of state," says Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "It's perfectly clear that Karl Rove would rather appease the president's right wing than provide healthcare to women around the world. UNFPA stands up for women in countries where most NGOs fear to travel, and now the president has said to these women, 'Later.'"

The administration insists the money will still go to women's health, just through USAID instead of the United Nations Population Fund. The problem with this -- besides further alienating America's allies, every one of which supports the Population Fund -- is that USAID operates in only 80 countries, as opposed to the Population Fund's 142. The UNFPA helps women in the most ravaged places on earth, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. The USAID has no staff in any of those nations.

According to Stirling Scruggs, the UNFPA's director of information, the withdrawal of U.S. support will undermine the agency's work all over the world. "The U.S. was instrumental in creating UNFPA in 1969, during the Nixon administration," he says. "U.S. leadership in this field has been critical. This may encourage countries where we're fighting for women's rights -- for example, the right to determine who to marry and when to marry -- to take this as a sign from the most powerful country in the world that they are against that sort of thing. That hurts our credibility. We've gotten countries to deal with female genital mutilation. It's been outlawed in 16 countries since 1994. We're worried that some countries may use [America's withdrawal] as an excuse to backtrack."

The loss of funds will have tangible cost in human lives, says Thoraya A. Obaid, executive director of the Population Fund. She estimates there will be 2 million unwanted pregnancies per year, nearly 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and more than 77,000 infant and child deaths.

All of which is why Democrats are reacting so fiercely. "The administration's decision to cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund is an absolute outrage," says Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. "Apparently, no price is too high for this administration when it comes to political payoffs."

Lowey has vowed to fight "tooth and nail" for legislation restoring money for the UNFPA. Leahy has already started. In the new Foreign Operations appropriations bill for 2003, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Thursday, Leahy succeeded in earmarking $50 million for the Population Fund and included language that would remove the president's discretion, forcing him to release the money within 30 days.

By 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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