The world's women left in the lurch

July 25, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Over the years, I thought my mind had become boggle-proof. It's a side effect of journalism. Sooner or later, we just lose the ability to be astonished by anything the government says. We lose the capacity to be overwhelmed by even the most nimble political spin.

But the Bush administration challenged all my insulation this week when it withheld $34 million in international family planning funds designated for the United Nations. The stated reason - and I use the word "reason" loosely - is that the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) works in China. Any money to the agency, it said, helps the "Chinese government to implement more effectively its programs of coercive abortion."

Well, allow me to explain the circuit breaker on outrage. None of the money we give to UNFPA could go to China anyway. It's against the law. It's also against the law for any U.S. money to fund abortions overseas. I know this and so do the folks in the Bush administration. Worst of all, they also know that the United Nations is not part of the problem of Chinese coercive policies; it's part of the solution.

Nevertheless, Colin Powell, acting as front man for the White House, wrote, "If there is a single principle that unifies Americans with conflicting views on the subject, it is the conviction that no woman should be forced to have an abortion." True enough. But Mr. Powell failed to mention that this single principle also unifies the United Nations.

The United Nations is on record all over the place as opposing the forced sterilizations and abortions that have too often accompanied China's one-child policy. It spends only $3.5 million of a $270 million budget in the People's Republic, but it is spent in 32 counties in a deliberate effort to show the Chinese government that voluntary family planning works.

"Here are the horrible things we've done in China," says UNFPA's Sarah Craven. "We've published materials letting the Chinese know the rights they have under U.N. human rights treaties. We've contracted to train family planning workers on quality care and informed consent. We've paid so Chinese family planning workers can go to other countries and see how it works. And we have a women's empowerment initiative to work on literacy and health care."

Indeed - here comes another boggle - the rate of abortion has decreased in the places where the United Nations has worked. "We're there to give the women of China hope," she says.

Remember last year when the secretary of state praised the UNFPA's "invaluable work" around the world? Since then, a team of British parliamentarians, including an ardent pro-life leader, went to China and concluded that the UNFPA was a force for positive change. Since then, a three-member team sent by our government also gave the United Nations a clean report card.

But in an act of public humiliation worthy of Mao's Red Guard, Mr. Powell was forced to publicly recant and deliver the party line of the right wing.

No one is making light of coercion in China. Certainly not those who believe in a woman's right to decide. But it's fair to ask whether we change policy best by engaging or disengaging with another government.

The Bush administration says it will give the family planning money to our own Agency for International Development. Fine. But let's remember that USAID operates in 84 countries, compared with the UNFPA's 140.

This is the story. In an effort to punish China, we are going to withhold money, which wouldn't go to China anyway, from the rest of the world's women.

Follow the bouncing boggle: In an effort to punish a U.N. operation that "gives hope to women in China," we are going to withdraw $34 million that pays for midwives and hospitals, birthing kits and contraceptives. And to appease the domestic "right-to-life" lobby, we are going to withhold enough money to prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 4,700 maternal deaths and more than 77,000 infant and child deaths.

If Mr. Bush gets away with this one, I'm definitely gonna take myself in for some new boggle-proofing.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist with The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at

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