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Where's the compassion?

Given the choice of helping millions of Third World women in need of contraceptives and reproductive health care or playing to the antiabortion wing of the Republican Party, President Bush chose political expediency over compassion. He refused to release $34-million to the United Nations Population Fund, which represents 12 percent of the agency's budget. The money would have helped women in developing countries seek voluntary family planning services, protect themselves against HIV and get adequate medical care when they do become pregnant. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the program for its "invaluable work."

Bush chose demagogy instead. Antiabortion groups such as Human Life International have accused the Population Fund of supporting China's use of coerced abortions. While China's population control practices are sometimes reprehensible, there is no evidence that U.S. money or the Population Fund are involved. The fund has agreed to use no U.S. money in China, and the work the fund does in that country is only in areas that haven't instituted the one-child-per-family rule.

But the administration forced Powell to back away from his early support of the fund. Although a State Department investigation earlier this year found no participation in coercive abortion by the fund, Bush's decision to withdraw the $34-million forced Powell to come up with a reason. A State Department analysis found that one county in China where the fund operates imposes fines on families who have more than one child. Apparently, Bush would rather embarrass Powell than stand up to his party's antiabortion zealots.

We understand that Bush opposes abortion. But he also claims to care about the plight of women in oppressive countries, about the poverty and hopelessness that breed terrorism. How does withholding support for family planning and health services for impoverished women achieve those goals?

The State Department says it will give the money instead to one of its health programs, but it serves fewer people in fewer countries. To make up for most of the shortfall in the Population Fund, the European Union offered a $32-million grant, further embarrassing the United States. That's quite a price to pay so the president can score some political points with antiabortion ideologues.