Advocacy Groups Look to Next President to Fund UN Population Body

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - Reproductive rights groups angered by the Bush administration's decision to withhold funding from the United Nations Population Fund for the seventh consecutive year are hopeful that the next president will reverse the move.

The decision announced last week by the State Department brings to about $235 million the amount of U.S. funding that has been denied to the UNFPA since 2002, because of its alleged links to China's controversial population control practices.

The U.S. is prohibited by a 1985 law -- "the Kemp-Kasten amendment" -- from supporting any organization that "supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."

The UNFPA and its backers vociferously deny that the agency's work in China, where it operates in 32 counties, supports coercive practices associated with Beijing's "one child" policy.

The latest defunding decision was relayed in a letter to Congress by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who again cited UNFPA's program in China as a violation of the Kemp-Kasten Amendment.

Advocacy groups were not surprised by the decision, but while condemning it, they voiced optimism that this was the last time it would happen.

Tamara Kreinin, executive director of women and population at the U.N. Foundation, said the organization was "looking forward to working with the next administration to restore funding for UNFPA and to strengthen the U.S.'s role as a global health leader."

Restoring U.S. funding for the UNFPA "should be one of the first actions of the next president," said Craig Lasher, senior policy analyst at Population Action International (PAI).

"We are already well on our way to ensuring that our next president is knowledgeable about the importance of global women's health," Anika Rahman, president of the advocacy group Americans for UNFPA, said in a statement.

"Together, we stand a good chance of ending the stunning disregard our government has shown the world's women."

Rahman said the organization would rally its supporters and urge the next administration not only to restore funding, but also begin to make up for the millions held back over the past seven years.

Voicing hope that both the Republican and Democratic parties would "take leadership on these issues," she said efforts were already underway to ensure that the foreign operations appropriations bill for fiscal year 2009 would include restored support for UNFPA.

The last time the Kemp-Kasten amendment came before Congress for a vote was last September, when Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) introduced an amendment to the 2008 foreign operations appropriations bill to keep the language intact in the legislation.

With the exception of Brownback himself, none of the then-presidential contenders in the Senate -- Barack Obama (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) -- took part in the vote. Brownback's amendment passed by a 48-45 margin.

As president, Obama would reinstate funding for the UNFPA, according to the reproductive rights advocacy organization Reproductive Health Reality Check, which developed a questionnaire for the candidates last October.

McCain, accused by NARAL Pro-Choice America of having a "solidly anti-choice record," has voted in the past in support of UNFPA defunding, in 1989 and 1995.

The McCain campaign Web site carries an article by Prof. Robert George, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, which says the Kemp-Kasten amendment would be among the key pro-life provisions that would be "in peril if John McCain is defeated."

'No key changes have taken place'

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the latest defunding decision means the UNFPA will not receive the nearly $40 million earmarked for its activities by Congress for the current fiscal year.

He said the administration had since 2002 "continuously called on China to end its program of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization."

"We also repeatedly have urged China and the U.N. Population Fund to restructure the organization's programs in a way that would allow the United States to provide funding," he said. "Since no key changes have taken place, these restrictions are being applied again."

China's "one-child" policy limits most urban couples to one child, and most rural couples to two, with exceptions made in certain circumstances. Since introduced three decades ago, the restrictions have prevented 400 million births, according to Beijing's population and family planning commission.

The policy is enforced through large fines, threat of job loss and demotion and other punishments and disincentives. Human rights researchers have also recorded the use of even more coercive measures such as involuntary sterilization and forced abortion.

And, they say, the levying of the prohibitive fines -- known euphemistically as "social compensation fees" -- can and do prompt poor Chinese to seek abortions.

In its most recent annual human rights report, the State Department said that the Chinese government during 2007 "continued its coercive birth limitation policy, in some cases resulting in forced abortion and sterilization." It cited reports about dozens of pregnant women in Guangxi province forced to undergo abortions during April and May, "some as late as nine months."

'Reducing abortions'

The UNFPA and its supporters say that the agency's programs in China, including the provision of contraceptives, have helped to reduce the number of abortions and maternal deaths, and to end coercive practices. By denying funding to the agency, they say, the U.S. is also putting at risk its valuable work in 150 countries around the world.

The pro-UNFPA groups frequently point to the fact that an assessment team sent to China by the Bush administration in 2002 returned with the recommendation that the UNFPA be funded, having found "no evidence" that the agency was in violation of the Kemp-Kasten provision.

Yet, in a decision slated by congressional Democrats as "ludicrous" and "a travesty," the administration chose to keep the restriction in place.

Testifying before Congress in 2004, Arthur Dewey, the then Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, elaborated on the controversial 2002 decision.

"On its return from a week in China, the team recommended continuation of funding of UNFPA," he acknowledged.

"But it also suggested doing what it lacked time to do during its brief mission, that is to translate the legislation governing birth planning policies in the counties where UNFPA worked, and also to find out how these policies were implemented and enforced.

"The evidence drawn from these follow-on steps clearly showed us that the large fees and penalties for out-of-plan births assessed in implementing China's regulations are tantamount to coercion that leads to abortion," Dewey said.

"UNFPA support of, and participation in, China's population-planning activities allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion, thus triggering the Kemp-Kasten prohibition," he said.

The number of countries donating to the UNFPA has risen from 69 in 1999 to 180 in 2006, when the agency received $360 million. The largest funders are European countries and Japan.

According to Casey, the State Department spokesman, the U.S. remains "the world's largest donor of assistance to help improve the health of women and children." The U.S. is providing $457 million for reproductive health care in FY 2008, including family planning, he said.

See earlier stories:
Sharp Decline in Births Looms in China (Mar. 12, 2008)
Pro-Lifers Wary of Reports of a Shift in China's 'One Child' Policy (Mar. 3, 2008)
Decision Not to Fund UNFPA Highlights Bush-Kerry Divide (Jul. 19, 2004)
Pro-Lifers Warn China Will Cover Up Abuses During Fact-Finding Trip (May 02, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow