‘One-Child’ Expert Urges Investigation Before UNFPA Funding Resumes

Patrick Goodenough | January 30, 2009 | 5:18am EST
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UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid at a press conference in New York on Jan. 27, 2009 discussed President Obama’s intended restoration of financial support for the agency. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(Editor’s note: Adds PRI comment)

– An American expert on China’s “one-child” population control policy is urging President Obama to delay restoring funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) pending an independent investigation into whether U.S. taxpayers’ money will support coerced abortions in China.
“The one-child policy is an issue about which pro-life people and pro-choice people can agree,” Reggie Littlejohn wrote to the president this week. “No one supports forced abortion, because it is not a choice.”
Citing links with the Chinese population control programs, the Bush administration withheld congressionally-approved funding from the UNFPA from 2002, blocking a total of $244 million.
U.S. law prohibits funding for any agency that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
Obama on Saturday signaled his intention to restore financial support for the UNFPA. The U.S., he said in a statement, would in so doing join 180 other donor nations working to “reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.”
Withholding funding from the agency was hugely unpopular with many non-governmental organizations dealing with reproductive and family planning issues. They frequently accused President Bush of putting ideology ahead of the health and welfare of women, especially in the developing world.
For its part, the UNFPA has long denied supporting coercive practices in China, saying that in the counties where it operated, the aim was to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions and to promote “client-oriented” family planning services.
The NGO Americans for UNFPA praised Obama’s statement, saying that it “allows all Americans to again hold our heads high. We can be proud to be part of a nation that is, once again, ready to lead the world in promoting the health and rights of women.”
But Littlejohn appealed to Obama, recalling that he has in the past called abortion a “personal tragedy.”
“You have also stated that, while you believe in a woman’s right to choose, you are not ‘pro-abortion.’  Rather, you seek to reduce the conditions that make women feel they have to choose an abortion,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, women in China cannot choose whether or not to have an abortion. They are coerced.”
Abortion, financial pressures, loss of homes and jobs
Littlejohn advises Human Rights Without Frontiers – a Brussels-based international NGO – on China’s one-child policy and last month addressed the European Parliament on the issue. As a lawyer she has also represented Chinese refugees in political asylum cases in the U.S.
In her letter, she noted that Beijing boasts at having “prevented” 400 million births since 1979.
“This figure is greater than the entire population of the United States. How have these births been ‘prevented’?  Through coercive measures that include forced abortion, forced sterilization, detention of family members until the illegally pregnant woman gives herself up for an abortion, job loss and other financial pressure, and the destruction of homes for those who escape forced abortion.”
Littlejohn quoted former Secretary of State Colin Powell – “your strong supporter” – as having stated after a 2002 State Department fact-finding mission to China: “UNFPA’s support of, and involvement in, China’s population-planning activities allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion. Therefore, it is not permissible to continue funding UNFPA at this time.”
Some controversy arose as a result of the State Department mission, because of a finding in its report that “we find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”

The mission did find evidence, however, of coercion in the form of severe punitive fines, or “social compensation fees,” imposed on couples who violate the policy, and the department’s legal analysis determined that those fines “have the purpose or effect of forcing mothers to have abortions.” UNFPA-funded computers and data-processing equipment facilitated China’s ability to impose fines or perform abortions on those women coerced to have abortions they would not otherwise undergo, it found.
Littlejohn said there was ample evidence that the coercive practices continue to this day, and an independent investigation should be commissioned to probe the issue.
“I have no doubt that such an independent investigation will reveal that coercive implementation is routine, including in areas in which UNFPA has been operational,” she said. “To restore UNFPA funding without investigating whether these coercive practices still exist, and whether UNFPA has been complicit with them, would be irresponsible.”
The State Department investigation followed an earlier one by the Population Research Institute (PRI), whose researchers in 2001 uncovered evidence of forced abortion and sterilization in a county in southern Guangdong province where UNFPA was operating. 

PRI in its report (pdf) said the UNFPA was even sharing an office with family planning officials enforcing coercive programs in Sihui County.

PRI media director Colin Mason Friday voiced support for an independent inquiry, and said any new evidence of UNFPA complicity in rights abuses should be “brought before Congress to keep Obama accountable before U.S. law.”

“We also believe, based on our earlier investigation, that the burden of proof lies with the UNFPA to demonstrate that they are no longer complicit with the Chinese program,” he said. “When we investigated, the two were nearly identifiable with each other, so close was their collaboration … we have no reason to believe that this has changed.”

"Until the UNFPA reverses its complicity in population control efforts worldwide, we at PRI will oppose using U.S. tax dollars to fund it.” Mason said.

 UNFPA expects 10 percent of funding from US
China’s population policy limits couples to having one child, with exceptions made in various cases. For instance, ethnic minorities or rural couples may have a second child if their firstborn is a girl, and a couple who are themselves both only children may have two.
Littlejohn disputes that these exceptions amount to an improvement, saying the problem is not how many children are allowed but with the coercive enforcement of the set limit.
“Whether a couple is allowed to have one child or two children, it is a human rights atrocity to drag a woman out of her home in the middle of the night, screaming and pleading, to forcibly abort her pregnancy, even in the ninth month – and under certain circumstances, to sterilize her – because she does not possess a government-issued birth permit,” she wrote to Obama.
“This is a crime against women and, in my opinion, a crime against humanity of the first order.”
Littlejohn also argued that the policy has spawned other serious problems and abuses, including gendercide, human trafficking, suicide, child theft, health problems arising from forced sterilizations, and an aging population.
Experts have warned of a demographic timebomb in a country that does not have a social security net and where elderly parents have traditionally relied on their children for support.
UNFPA executive director Thoraya Obaid told a press conference on Tuesday that Obama’s policy shift would “provide support to women in the poorest countries of the world.”
While the exact U.S. annual contribution to the agency’s $430 million annual budget would be up to the U.S. Congress, discussions were in the $40-$60 million range, she said. Congress has typically approved $34 million in previous years.
Obaid said the biggest contributor in recent years has been the Netherlands, while other major funders include the Nordic countries, Britain and Japan.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with the United States again as a full partner.”
Americans for UNFPA president Anika Rahman said Congress should allocate $60 to UNFPA in its fiscal year 2009 appropriations.
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