US threatens to pull out of population accord

Posted: 5 November 2002

In a startling challenge to the United Nations and the international community, the Bush administration is threatening to withdraw its support for the hard-fought Cairo consensus on population and development, which the United States helped to draw up eight years ago.

The reason for the threat is contained in two terms that the administration contends can be construed as promoting abortion. The terms -- reproductive health services and reproductive rights -- figure in the final declaration of the United Nations population conference in 1994 in Cairo, which embraced a new concept of population policy based on improving the legal rights and economic status of women. The declaration has since been endorsed by 179 nations.

But during a population and development conference in Bangkok in early November, 2002, the American delegation announced that Washington would not reaffirm its support for the Cairo "programme of action" unless the disputed words were hanged or removed, United States and United Nations officials said.

'Disappointing and incredible'

The threat startled members of other delegations attending the Asian and Pacific Population Conference and drew immediate criticism from Chinese, Indian and Indonesian officials, who argued that the American position would undermine a global consensus on population policy, according to United Nations officials.

The threat has also elicited a sharp response from some Europeans.

"I think it is disappointing and incredible," said Agnes van Ardenne, the Dutch minister for development co-operation. "Poverty reduction will not be successful without reproductive health and without women being able to make their own choices."

Congressional Democrats and United Nations officials underscored these concerns, saying that a decision by the administration to withdrawsupport for the Cairo programme would undermine the efforts of family planning officials in countries that have looked to the United States to take the lead in checking population growth.

"The impact of these public statements is devastating and could undermine 10 years of work," Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, said in a draft letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "It is likely that repressive countries will follow the United States in its decision and the progress that has been made will cease."

The 1994 conference was widely considered a watershed event because it moved away from traditional ideas of family planning and embraced the idea that giving women more control over their lives would provide a check against explosive population growth.

The programme of action called for stabilizing the world's population at no more than 9.8 billion by 2050 and it urged countries to make health care widely accessible, reduce maternal mortality, provide universal access to primary education and stem the spread of HIV and AIDS. The programme also suggested that where abortion is legal, it should be made safe.

The programme's acknowledgment that legal abortion could be part of health care has drawn objections from the Vatican and several Muslim and Latin American countries. But over the years, the United States has consistently reaffirmed the Cairo principles.

'Voice your outrage'

The US action brought an especially sharp response from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) which said it was only the latest in a long line of politically driven setbacks for reproductive health and rights coming from the Bush administration.

Dr Steven Sinding, IPPF Director-General, says that this move would undermine a global consensus on population policy and has called on its partner agencies to take action and stand firm against Bush's war on women.

"The 1994 conference was hailed by supporters of women's rights and advocates of checking population growth, by giving women more control of their lives to control their own reproduction and help themselves out of poverty.

"Hiding behind the word 'abortion' Bush is single-handedly attempting to roll back commitments made at this and previous world conferences and to ignore agreed-upon human rights and fundamental freedoms.

"Since coming to office, this administration has taken a series of steps to block funding for family-planning programmes around the world - most recently by refusing to release $34 million approved by Congress last year for the United Nations Population Fund and cutting off funding to the International Planned Parenthood Federation. In doing so it has denied US funds to the two largest and most effective internationalorganizations delivering family planning and reproductive health care to poor women around the world."

"Now, the Bush administration threatens to turn the clock back 40 years with respect to access to health care and education for women. I call upon IPPF's partners and IPPF's members in more than 150 countries world-wide to act on your outrage, for the sake of the world's women. Mobilise your governments and policymakers; voice your concerns; we cannot let such cynical, destructive and retrograde actions go unchallenged."

'Stand firm' appeal

In a separate statement, the heads of leading organisations in the reproductive health and population fields urged US Secretary of StateColin Powell to clarify whether the State Department delegation at the meeting was acting on the Administration's authority.

They said the Bush Administration would e "turning back the clock" on women's health and rights if the repored US actions and statements at the Bangkok meeting now represent official U.S. policy.

Heads of Family Care International, the International Women's Healthn Coalition, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Population Action International, The Alan Guttmacher Institute, and The Centre for Development and Population Activities said: "The agreement reached in Cairo in 1994 affirmed the most basic of human rights: the right of all people to decide for themselves on when and how many children to bear and the right of all individuals to good reproductive health free from the fear of death or disease.

"If, as appears to be the case, the Bush Administration is withdrawing support for this agreement, it would mark a fundamental shift inlongstanding US foreign assistance policy and conflict sharply with the Administration's oft-repeated support for women's rights, family planning and related health programmes."

The group called upon other governments and on colleagues in civil society around the world "to stand firm and speak out against this latest attempt to turn back the clock on women's reproductive health and rights."

Source: New York Times and IPPF (4 November, 2002), PAI press release (5 November, 2002).