Bush denies UNFPA grant for fourth year

Posted: 28 September 2005

Author: Jim Lobe

For the fourth year in a row, US President Bush has refused to contribute to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), providing 25 million dollars of the 34 million dollars that Congress had earmarked for the agency to the child survival and health account of the US.Agency for International Development (USAID). Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service (IPS) reports.

In a letter from Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns to Congress, the administration said it had determined that UNFPA's support for China's population programme "facilitates (its) government's coercive abortion programme", thus violating a 20-year-old law that bans the use of U.S. aid to finance or support abortions overseas.

As in previous years, both UNFPA and US population groups denounced Bush's decision, particularly coming as it did in the same week that Bush delivered a relatively conciliatory speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which he stressed his administration's support for the Millennium Development Goals, which include drastically reducing maternal mortality.

"A US decision to restore funding to UNFPA would have been a swift and concrete indication to the rest of the world that the reality of US. policy now matches US rhetoric," stated a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by the directors of 21 U.S. population, environmental, and church groups.

"Instead, just one day after President Bush's speech to the U.N. General Assembly, your office once again has chosen politics over saving the lives of women living in the most vulnerable circumstances who are in need of life-saving reproductive health care," the letter went on.

Among the signers were directors of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and its U.S. affiliate, Population Action International (PAI), the Sierra Club, and Women's Edge.

UNFPA executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid called Bush's decision "regrettable" and rejected the State Department's rationale. "This decision is disheartening because it contradicts clear evidence that UNFPA works hard to end coercion by proving the efficacy and superiority of the voluntary approach to family planning over any other alternative."

The agency also charged that the administration's reason was "simply incorrect", citing the findings of an assessment team sent to China two years ago that found no evidence that UNFPA supports coercive abortions or sterilisation there.

$136m. lost

Bush's decision brings to 136 million dollars the amount that Congress has appropriated for UNFPA -- but that Bush has refused to pass along -- since 2001, despite the fact that Washington has historically been the world's biggest bilateral donor of family planning assistance for developing countries.

Long a target of anti-abortion forces in the U.S., UNFPA, with an annual budget of about 300 million dollars, has been the world's most important provider of family planning assistance.

As a matter of policy, it has strongly opposed coercive abortions and sterilisations and indeed sponsors pilot programmes in 32 counties in China in which coercive practices persist that are explicitly designed to discourage them.

In 2002, a special State Department mission found no evidence that UNFPA provided support - either moral or material - to coercive practices in China, while a British delegation praised UNFPA's projects as a "force for good" there. Even Rice's predecessor, Colin Powell, had publicly indicated his reservations with Bush's action.

Nonetheless, the administration, in a novel interpretation of the 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment, has argued since 2002 that any agency support to China may indirectly support coercive practices by freeing up resources that might not otherwise be available for that purpose.

To protest China's coercive population policies in the past, Congress had required UNFPA to hold the U.S. contribution in a separate account to ensure that none of it went to China. It also required that the amount of money UNFPA spent in the country be subtracted from the total U.S. contribution. But this avenue, which was adopted by former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been rejected by the latter's son.

Instead, anti-abortion forces, which are especially strong in the Republican-led House of Representatives, changed the law to give him discretion to withhold congressionally appropriated money for UNFPA - an option that he has now exercised once again.

Christian Right

Many critics have charged that the administration's policy amounts to pandering to his Christian Right supporters and is actually counter-productive to its goals of improving maternal and child health and reducing abortions.

"Not one penny of the withheld UNFPA funding, had it materialised, would have gone to China, or to promote or reform abortions anywhere in the world," according to the letter from the 21 groups.

"Rather it would have helped provide critical services to women in 139 other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The U.S. hands-off policy has had no impact on China's behaviour, but it has caused measureless suffering worldwide."

Indeed, UNFPA itself has estimated that one year's U.S. contribution could prevent as many as two million unwanted pregnancies and 4,700 maternal deaths in poor countries.

In previous years, the administration had announced its decision to withhold aid to UNFPA in July, so the delay offered a suggestion that it might reassess its position. This seemed especially possible in light of other US efforts to mend ties with allies at the UN., particularly members of the European Union (EU), which have increased their contributions to the agency to help make up for Washington's boycott.

The administration did not explain why the announcement was delayed.

"I am dismayed, but not surprised," said Amy Coen, PAI president.

"Having just spent the past few days monitoring the 2005 World Summit where world leaders have met to guage progress toward the Millennium Development Goals - that include reducing world hunger and poverty and stemming the spread of AIDS by 2015 - it makes me angry that the Bush administration would again de-fund an organisation that is so vital in the quest to achieve success."

Source: COPYRIGHT IPS (The global news service on development matters)