Salvadoran Pro-Life Group Accuses UN of Violating Constitution

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

CORRECTION: Corrects types of abortion mechanisms in 2nd paragraph

( - United Nations agencies working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and local authorities are making abortion drugs and paraphernalia available to victims of earthquakes in El Salvador, in violation of the country's constitution, a Salvadoran pro-life group has alleged.

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) is distributing emergency contraception drugs that can be used to induce abortion up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse, and intrauterine devices, or IUDs, which can prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, according to Julia Cardenal, president of "Si A La Vida" (Yes to Life).

The distribution of these materials violates the El Salvadoran constitution, which states that life begins at the moment of conception, said Cardenal, an outspoken critic of the United Nation's family planning assistance to Latin America.

"We had two major earthquakes in El Salvador in January and February of this year, and instead of sending us food or medicine, or something to meet our needs, they sent a range of contraception devices," she said in a phone interview from El Salvador.

Cardenal recently handed U.N-supplied material and literature, which included instructions in the taking of abortifacients, to U.S. lawmakers, who promised to investigate the situation.

"Si A La Vida" is a pro-life volunteer organization that conducts seminars to prevent teen pregnancies. Founded in 1988, the groups also runs information centers on alternatives to abortion and a home for unwed mothers in El Salvador.

U.N. Works With Salvadoran Agencies

Senior Salvadoran officials denied that U.N. assistance to the country violates their constitution in any way and called Cardenal's charges "irresponsible."

"This complaint is not substantiated by any kind of evidence," said Herbert Betancourt, vice minister of health for El Salvador.

"I can say clearly that we are very respectful of our constitution, which forbids abortion. And we have data to show how we were able to increase our care to women in need through U.N. assistance," he said.

U.N. help made it possible for the Health Ministry to send mobile clinics to local communities whose hospitals had been severely damaged by the earthquakes, and bring much needed pre-natal care and medication to women, Betancourt said.

"We have the data and we can provide the data," he said.

Jose Roberto Andino Salazar, the El Salvadoran ambassador to the United Nations in New York, said his office had not heard of any abuses, either from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or from private individuals, that would warrant an investigation into alleged U.N.-assisted abortions in El Salvador.

Careful checks are made on how El Salvador spends the U.N. aid it receives. Similarly, the United Nations is bound by the laws of the countries it assists, he said.

UNFPA officials said the agency operates in countries by invitation only. None of its products violate domestic constitutions because emergency contraception only prevents implantation.

Officials strongly denied that the UNFPA is in any way providing abortion assistance or advice. "The assistance we grant governments is at their request and in conformity with international sovereignty and human rights' standards," a U.N. spokesman said.

Contraceptives of various kinds are sold in pharmacies in El Salvador, and all medications regarding reproductive health that come into the country have to be approved by the Ministry of Health.

UNFPA approved $6.3 million for El Salvador for reproductive health over the past five years. USAID has been the main contributor to reproductive health services in El Salvador, having donated $29 million to improve basic health services and reduce infant mortality from the early to mid-1990s.

USAID also provided contraceptives to the Ministry of Health and is supporting an association of 30 local NGOs to expand maternal and child health and family planning for 100,000 women, the UNFPA reports.

Aid Linked to U.N. Programs

But pro-life groups say countries like El Salvador, half of whose population of 6 million people live in poverty, are coerced into cooperating with the United Nations.

Loans and grants by such agencies as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are awarded on condition that Latin American countries participate in U.N. family planning programs, they say.

"This debate is really about pressuring nations to accept change in their internal sovereignty and their cultural and ethical identity," said Olivia Gans, director of American Victims of Abortion, a program of the National Right to Life Committee.

Other pro-life activists corroborate this view. Wherever there's human tragedy and crisis situations, the UNFPA's response is to send in "reproductive health kits," which include the morning-after pill and the manual vacuum aspirator, said Austin Ruse, director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.

"They do this even in situations where the target population objects to abortion," said Ruse, who reported about the distribution of reproductive health kits to refugees by U.N. agencies when he visited Albania on a fact-finding mission in April 1999.

"They look for an opening in a crisis situation and flood the market with their products," he said.

Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, said the United Nations has been at the forefront of promoting "reproductive choice" and "reproductive health care" for years among populations that are opposed to abortion.

"There is little to any attention paid to the fact that an abortion occurs by chemical in the very same way that it occurs by surgical instrument," Brown said.

"The U.N. ignores the fact that an abortion can occur prior to implantation, argues that life does not begin until implantation and then exports these drugs that kill people," she said.

U.S. Taxpayers Fund UNFPA

Steve Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, faulted the Bush administration for including in its budget submission to Congress $25 million for the UNFPA.

"They didn't ask those of us who are familiar with this agency if that was a good idea. Had they asked, we would have told them it's not a good idea because the Population Fund violates the 'Mexico City policy,'" Mosher said.

As his first official act as chief executive, President Bush reinstated the pro-life 'Mexico City policy,' which forbids U.S. taxpayer dollars from supporting overseas groups that either promote or perform abortion.

"So we're a little concerned that the Bush administration didn't take this money out because of these violations around the world, including in refugee camps run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees," he said.

Olivia Gans of the National Right to Life Committee said: "At a time like this with the earthquakes in El Salvador, we're talking about true authentic need not being met because an agenda comes first. That's scandalous at the very least and at worst it borders on true civil rights violations. And the United Nations is sponsoring it."

But Salvadoran officials said U.N. assistance to the country saves lives and should be continued. "If you go a little deeper into this you will realize how irresponsible are the comments of some of these organizations in terms of destroying policies that are really important for us in preventing diseases," Betancourt said.