Bush's drive for global abstinence

At a United Nations conference in Bangkok, the U.S. shocks more than 30 Asian countries with a condemnation of premarital sex, contraception and abortion.

By Laura McClure
Published December 19, 2002 8:42PM (EST)

Delegates to a United Nations population conference in Asia already knew that the U.S. government had turned more conservative since the last time they met to determine international family-planning policy. Even so, when Assistant Secretary of State Arthur E. Dewey delivered his remarks on abortion last week in Bangkok, they were stunned.

Standing before a hall packed with representatives from over 30 Asian countries, Dewey stated unequivocally that the U.S. would seek to block the passage of any international family planning policy that permits abortion or promotes contraception for adolescents. "The United States supports the sanctity of life from conception to natural death," he said. "There has been a concerted effort to create a gulf by pushing the United States to violate its principles and accept language that promotes abortion."

U.S. delegates maintained that phrases present in the conference's proposed policy -- such as "reproductive rights" and "consistent condom use" -- were euphemisms for abortion and the approval of "underage" sex -- policies far out of line with the current Bush administration, which advocates abstinence outside of marriage and opposes abortion.

But when the U.S. demanded that even the phrase "reproductive health" be struck from the proposal in order to protect unborn children, critics -- even those from highly religious countries like the Philippines and Iran -- suggested that U.S. foreign policy had been hijacked by the religious right.

"The current U.S. administration is being held hostage by an extreme conservative minority with little regard for the health, welfare and freedoms of women of Asia and the Pacific," said Ninuk Widyantoro of the Women's Health Foundation in Indonesia. "We hope that in the future, U.S. delegations at such conferences will more accurately represent the humanitarian values of the women and men of their nation."

U.S. delegates argued bitterly against the inclusion of such phrases in the proposal until the last day of the conference, when, faced with an impasse, the conference took a vote -- an unusual tactic for U.N. conferences. The U.S. lost the first vote - to exclude language on "reproductive rights" -- 31-1. They lost the second -- over "adolescent reproductive health" -- 32-1.

Although the adopted plan of action does not have the force of law, its tenets are influential as guidelines for international development policy and can affect program funding throughout the world. With the U.S. making the sole opposition to the adopted standards, many experts say the U.S. vote probably heralds similar conflicts at population conferences covering other parts of the world.

Eight years ago, the U.S. stance on international reproductive rights was entirely different.

When the last U.N. population conference met, in Cairo in 1994, the U.S. delegates were instrumental in producing a landmark agreement on international family planning and health rights -- the first agreement to guarantee universal women's rights regarding healthcare and economic status. The plan was endorsed by 179 countries, and is still hailed by international health personnel as a milestone in reproductive health rights. The 2002 U.N. international family planning proposal is heavily based on the Cairo agreement, and the wording is verbatim in parts. In fact, it was the U.S. that originally wove the words "reproductive health" into the 1994 plan's mission and now, in 2002, it was the U.S that sought to take them out.

The change in policy directly reflects the change from the administration of former President Bill Clinton to the administration of President George Bush. And in a speech delivered to U.N. conference delegates Monday, Dewey made the administration's position clear:

"As President Bush has stated, 'Our society has a responsibility to defend the vulnerable and weak, the imperfect, and even the unwanted,'" Dewey said. "He has said that we 'should set a great goal that unborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law.'"

Dewey's speech was equally unequivocal on HIV prevention and out-of-wedlock sex: "We support the ABC approach that has proven so effective in Uganda -- Abstinence, Be faithful, Condom use," he said. "The United States distributed over 300 million condoms last year. Because condoms are simply not 100 percent effective, however, it is critical that we also promote abstinence for the unmarried and fidelity for those who are married ... Contrary to the misinformation provided by some, abstinence is not the only choice the U.S. makes available to adolescents. The United States firmly believes, however, that abstinence is the preferred, most responsible, and healthiest choice for adolescents."

Dewey's speech provoked a storm of angry reactions from the other delegates, none of whom saw the language of the proposed U.N. plan of action as being in conflict with these principles.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, a Saudi Arabian national and the UNFPA's executive director, responded to Dewey in a speech Monday, saying that the Cairo document "states, and I quote: 'In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.' The meaning of the phrases 'reproductive health' and 'reproductive rights' are not in doubt."

Other delegates were less charitable in their remarks. What angered Zonny Woods, director of government relations for Action Canada for Population and Development, was the hypocrisy of Dewey's statement, given that abortion and contraception are legal in the United States "Most distressing," she said, "is the U.S. delegation's failure to acknowledge that access to reproductive health services is already a reality for women in many countries, yet for hundreds of millions of women elsewhere, it is still a dream."

The U.S. State Department responded to the onslaught Tuesday with a statement that its interests were merely the welfare of women worldwide. "We continue to support the many goals and principles of the 1994 international conference on population and development," said the statement. "We are disappointed that so much attention at the conference was focused on this language rather than on improving the lives of people in the region."

Because the U.S. is the largest donor of aid to the developing world, a win for the White House would not have been merely symbolic. The U.S. under the Bush administration has already veered sharply to the right this year on international reproductive health issues by de-funding the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which provides voluntary family planning services to developing countries. The $34 million cut was a direct result of lobbying by the far-right group Population Research International, which falsely charged the U.N. fund with complicity in coercive abortion and sterilization in China. An independent investigation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell disproved this claim, but President Bush made the cut anyway.

According to Bruce Cain, a political analyst at the University of California at Berkeley, these actions show that the religious right is now calling in its chips with President Bush -- and Bush is delivering. "International health is the area in which the president has the most discretion," Cain said in an interview. "He doesn't have to go through Congress. You would expect in areas where he has greater discretion, he's going to give things to the right. International health is not an area that's obvious to the average taxpayer. It's politically safe."

As a domestic political bargaining chip, $34 million is more important symbolically than financially -- it's not considered a lot of money in foreign-aid terms. But overseas, the opposite is true: $34 million is enough, according to the UNFPA, to prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, nearly 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths.

"The impact was stunning," said Amy Coen, president of Population Action International, a U.S. nonprofit. "This is a man who stopped contraceptive services to the poorest women in the greatest need."

According to Coen, the U.S. vote at the U.N. conference is a harbinger of what's to come in the U.S. -- and no one's paying attention. If the wording changes had passed, it would have built momentum for domestic restrictions in access to legal abortion and contraceptives, she said in an interview. "We've had these rights for so long that it is extremely difficult for an American to grasp that we have an administration that doesn't support contraception. We can't believe it. We think that can't possibly be right. But [this administration] is out to dismantle the reproductive rights women have had for years. They're doing it methodically and they're doing it below the radar screen. They know that middle-class Americans who vote don't pay attention to international issues, but they can make sure [the news of the U.N. vote] shows up in the newsletters of the far right."

Cain supports this view. "We're waiting for the other shoe to drop," he said, "and that will be when we get to the Supreme Court appointments. That's the Super Bowl of this whole business. I have no doubt that the debts [to the religious right] will be paid off in the choices Bush makes for those appointments."

Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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Abortion Asia Bill Clinton George W. Bush Love And Sex Sex United Nations