Coercive Abortion in China: Refugee AIDS Project Loses US Funding

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A group of American non-governmental organizations working to prevent and respond to HIV-AIDS among refugees, has turned down U.S. government funding rather than part ways with an associated, British-based NGO which Washington suspects is linked to coercive abortions in China.

Six members of the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium have chosen to continue working with the seventh, Marie Stopes International (MSI), despite the consequential loss of funding from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

A press officer for one of the six NGOs, Alina Labrada of the humanitarian agency, Care, said Thursday the consortium was disappointed that the State Department was "turning down this opportunity to fund this HIV-AIDS program."

From the State Department's viewpoint, however, "it was the consortium's decision not to accept the funding," spokesman Philip Reeker said Wednesday.

"We offered this funding to six of them, in order to continue supporting the good work that they've done on prevention and response to HIV-AIDS in refugee settings," he told a regular press briefing.

Reeker said the funding offer had excluded MSI because it was "a major implementing partner" for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) program in China.

The State Department determined last year that assistance to Chinese state family planning constitutes support for coercive birth-limitation programs. The UNFPA has as a result been zero-funded.

Labrada of Care said the projects that would be affected by the loss of funding for the consortium involved refugees in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

"Those people are going to go without very critical HIV-AIDS education in places that already are bearing the burden of conflict ... it's a setback," Labrada said.

Labrada said the U.S. government had funded the eight-year-old consortium before.

"Our view is, why break up a successful group? It doesn't make any sense to us that they would offer to give us funds without all the members participating. So we've declined [to take the money and stop working with MSI]," Labrada added.

Labrada said the consortium would look for alternative sources of funding.

Past donors include the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We have a good track record with donors, so we're going to be going back to people and say 'Can you step up [funding] and help us get this done?'" Labrada said.

Labrada conceded that it was a difficult time to get funding in the U.S., attributing that to the "understandable" focus on the war against terrorism, as well as "the looming budget deficit."

"The [funding] climate is very, very restrictive, and that makes our work more difficult," Labrada said.

Apart from Care and MSI, the consortium comprises the International Rescue Committee, the American Refugee Committee, the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, John Snow International and Columbia University's Department of Population and Family Health.

Forced abortion, sterilization claims

Zero-funding of the UNFPA is the outworking of appropriations legislation stipulating that no funds "may be made available to any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."

In recent years the UNFPA and its partner MSI have been involved in a pilot project in some 30 Chinese "model counties," which they assert are free of the abuses seen elsewhere in the country's controversial population control program.

Critics, spearheaded by the Virginia-based Population Research Institute (PRI), disagree.

The PRI says it has carried out extensive on-the-ground investigations in China. As recently as several months ago, PRI President Steve Mosher said the organization had found evidence of forced abortion and involuntary sterilization - including in the "model counties."

MSI is an international organization, headquartered in the UK, which provides "sexual and reproductive health information and services," including 35,000 abortions a year, to people in 38 countries, mostly in the developing world.

Its China program falls under MSI's Australia office in Melbourne, from where project support manager Sue Downie on Thursday firmly repeated its denial that its work in the 30 Chinese counties supported coercive practices.

"We only work in counties that have made a commitment to reproductive rights - and that means no forced abortion and no forced sterilization," Downie said.

Downie argued that the standards being set in those 30 counties were already spreading further afield, and that the project aimed ultimately to eliminate forced abortions nationally as well as reduce the overall number of voluntary abortions.

"If the Bush administration wants the government of China to stop forced abortions nationally - that is, beyond the 30 counties - then the U.S. should be supporting this project," Downie said.

That it wasn't doing so, Downie said, was "probably for domestic political reasons."

The UNFPA and MSI have just begun a new China program which builds on the original pilot project, and which will run until December 2005, Downie said.

MSI is named after its founder, Scottish-born Marie Stopes, who opened Britain's first "family planning clinic" in London in 1921.

She is hailed as a pioneer, who in the words of a blurb on the MSI website "opened up discussion about sex and changed public opinion at a time when the Church, society and the medical establishment were opposed to birth control."

Critics depict her as a racist and eugenicist, noting that her published views included the observation that "our race is weakened by an appallingly high percentage of unfit weaklings and diseased individuals ... only children with the chance of attaining strong, beautiful and intelligent maturity should be conceived."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow