July 15, 2004
The quiet announcement by the Bush administration that it was to block funding of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) for the third year is disappointing and shortsighted.
The administration chose to withhold money from the organization because it claims the U.N. Population Fund supports coercive family planning practices in China. But this reasoning is unfounded, as a study by the U.S. State Department found two years ago.
Led by William A. Brown, a former ambassador hand-picked by President Bush, the department found "no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the People's Republic of China." The team then recommended the administration release the $34 million already earmarked for the fund.
But two years later, the administration is still blocking its release.
In just one year alone, the money could have spared 4,700 women from dying due to preventable childbirth complications in the 140 countries the agency distributes funds to. It could have saved 77,000 infants and children under 5 who will now die from a loss of maternal nurturing. And it could have helped prevent 2 million unplanned and unwanted pregnancies and 800,000 unsafe induced terminations, the agency estimates.
Those from Bush's political base who claim the U.N. Population Fund's policies promote abortion are simply wrong. In fact, the services prevent it. The organization addresses the reproductive health and family planning needs of women and men in low-income countries throughout the world. It provides information, education and resources that enable both women and men to make better decisions in their lives so that unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmissible diseases, especially HIV/AIDS, do not occur in the first place.
What's more, the serious shortfall in funding for reproductive health programs will only exacerbate conditions of poverty and social injustice worldwide.
In this post-Sept. 11 world, we need to be more mindful of the issues contributing to global unrest. These include poverty, gender inequality and the spread of diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Ironically, the Bush policy sets back important efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, the number of women who die of pregnancy and childbirth complications has nearly tripled since 1990, according to the agency. Instead of retreating when the most recent war began, the U.N. Population Fund stepped up its efforts to provide emergency reproductive health care, equipment, essential medicine and qualified staff. Those efforts should be rewarded, not punished.
In Afghanistan, the agency helped rebuild a maternity hospital in Kabul, now giving mothers and infants a far better chance of surviving childbirth. The Khair Khana Hospital -- once filthy, overcrowded and woefully underequipped -- now has a clean delivery room and an up-to-date operating room where Caesarean sections can be performed. Its capacity has doubled, and the hospital now handles some 30-to-40 deliveries each day. The facility serves a poor, densely populated area with a population of 1 million. Surely it deserves U.S. support.
It is in America's interest, the interest of women and the interest of peace to participate in the U.N. Population Fund.
Anika Rahman is president of the U.S. Committee for the U.N. Population Fund (www.unfpa.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.