US seeking to isolate UNFPA, critics warn

Posted: 23 June 2004

After withdrawing support from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) two years ago, the United States is now seeking to isolate the agency from other UN bodies and non-governmental groups, reports Christopher Marquis in the New York Times.

Family planning clinic, Fujiaan Province© Don Hinrichsen
Family planning clinic, Fujiaan Province© Don Hinrichsen
Family planning clinic, Fujian Province, China.© Don Hinrichsen
Diplomats and UN officials say the Bush administration, under pressure from anti-abortionists, has been warning other groups that their funding will be cut if they insist on working with the population agency. At an informal meeting of the UNICEF executive board and donors this month, the administration said it could no longer support joint programs with UNFPA because of worries that the money could not be kept separate.

In April the US government pulled its share of funding from an international conference on health issues at which speakers from UNFPA and the International Planned Parenthood Federation were scheduled to appear. The administration is also hoping to persuade Latin American UN states to alter a declaration adopted in March on reproductive rights that could be interpreted as promoting abortion.

The Bush administration's efforts are part of an attempt to ensure that international agencies and private groups do not promote abortions abroad. After coming into office, the Bush administration renewed a policy referred to by critics as the "global gag rule" that denies money to groups that discuss abortion as an option, except in life-threatening cases or those involving rape or incest.

Abortion opponents in the US Congress and elsewhere argue that UNFPA assists in coercive abortions in China. They have been successful in withholding funds for most of the last 20 years.

Free condoms, China. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Free condoms, China. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
Many of Shanghai's municipal buildings are equipped with free condom dispensers© Don Hinrichsen
Some UN officials and family planning groups have complained that the US position threatens to undermine advances in education and awareness on reproductive issues.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell last week, four Democratic members of Congress called for a legal explanation of why the administration has withheld funding from UNFPA and for the "threatened defunding of the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children's Fund [UNICEF]."

"When will the president's right wing be satisfied - when they close down the UN?" asked Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, who has led efforts to restore support to UNFPA.

The row follows events two years ago when the administration sent a fact-finding team to investigate claims that UNFPA was complicit in coercive abortions in China. The team found no evidence that UNFPA knowingly supported programs promoting coercive abortions, but Powell wrote Congress two months after the May mission saying that the fund had provided computers and vehicles to Chinese government groups enforcing the state's reproductive policy, which imposes tax penalties on parents who have more than one child.

Bush withheld the $34 million payments in 2002 and again last year. He will have until July 15 to make a decision on this year's budget.

At a March meeting of family planning lobbyists and others, Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Dewey said the department wanted to reach a legal interpretation that would allow financing of the fund, two participants at the meeting told the Times.

Dewey warned that UNFPA advocates should not try to link up with UNICEF and other agencies in China, because doing so would pull those groups into the abortion debate and "tar and feather" them, the participants said.

Source: New York Times and UN Wire June 21, 2004.