UNITED NATIONS -- The Vatican decided last week to withhold a symbolic annual contribution to UNICEF, because the Holy See says the United Nations children's agency has become an advocate of birth control.
On Monday, the observer mission of the Holy See at the United Nations said the agency had begun diverting some of its resources from children to broader issues of maternal health.
The Vatican said that UNICEF had taken part in the publication of a manual that recommended "morning-after" abortion medications to women in emergency situations in refugee camps. It also said that UNICEF had advocated liberalized laws on abortion in some nations. The Holy See cited "credible reports" that UNICEF workers were distributing contraceptives around the world and explaining how to use them.
The Vatican's U.N. mission said that it thus no longer could give UNICEF a traditional symbolic gift of $2,000 and that it would divide the money between the World Health Organization's Multicenter Infant Growth Reference Study and the U.N. Fund for the International Control of Drugs.
The Vatican holds observer status at the United Nations because of its territorial possessions in Rome, but the Holy See is not expected to contribute to programs. Its gifts to agencies are token expressions of support.
UNICEF replied that it was not providing contraceptives and had never advocated abortion. A spokeswoman for the agency, Madeleine Eisner, said, "UNICEF's position has not changed on family planning issues, and it remains consistent with that of the Holy See."
The manual criticized by the Vatican was prepared by the U.N. Population Fund and the High Commissioner for Refugees, based on an interagency conference on how to deal with refugee crises, Eisner said.
Friday, Catholics for a Free Choice, a group that advocates women's rights on abortion and other health issues, said it had given UNICEF $2,000 to replace the money withheld by the Vatican.
The rights group's president, Frances Kissling, said in a letter to Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's executive director: "As Catholics, we seek to live out Jesus' call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick and shelter the homeless. We are disappointed when this work becomes politicized or threatened by other agendas."
The Vatican's disagreement with U.N. agencies and independent aid groups on issues of family planning and maternal health exploded into public view before the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in 1994. At that time, the Holy See tried to block international declarations supporting women's rights. The issue surfaced again last year in connection with the Fourth World Conference on Women.
A number of U.N. agencies, supported by governments, have been strengthening programs that give women central roles in developing the poorest countries. In many such programs, women are encouraged to have fewer children. And in emergencies such as regional wars and refugee movements, international aid workers are more vigilant about rape cases, seeking to help victims of sexual abuse.
The debate over activities that stress the rights of women has been amplified by a new study. The Population Information Program at the Johns Hopkins University published figures last week showing that at least 100 million married women -- one in every five in developing countries -- want to avoid pregnancy but are not using contraceptives. Their reasons vary, but chief among them is the scarcity of contraceptives.