Every administration makes certain compromises _ in policy and appointments _ to satisfy important political constituencies. But most administrations draw the line at compromises that cost lives. The Bush administration now has crossed that line _ not accidentally but deliberately.
The decision announced last week to withhold the $34-million U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will cost uncounted women and children their lives. This organization supports family planning and maternal health programs in more than 140 countries, including education programs to prevent HIV/AIDS. Its projects have a proven track record of reducing mortality rates for mothers and infants, as well as limiting population growth.
If historical patterns hold, UNFPA says that the loss of the U.S. contribution _ 12 percent of its $270-million budget _ will translate to 2-million more unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 more abortions, 4,700 more dead mothers and 77,000 more deaths among children under 5. Even if those estimates cannot be proved, the loss of American support clearly will be paid for in human suffering.
Despite its consistent set of policies supporting voluntary contraception methods, UNFPA has been under attack from a group of legislators who accuse it of condoning, if not supporting, abortion. A longstanding statute prohibits any U.S. support of overseas family planning programs that include abortion as an option. But these lawmakers, led by Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, remain unsatisfied.
Between 1986 and 1992, they succeeded in cutting off U.S. support for the fund, but America came back in when Bill Clinton took office, and President Bush continued it in his first year, asking for $25-million in his budget and signing an appropriation for $34-million.
But then, last January, came a letter from Smith and other abortion foes alleging that UNFPA was subsidizing China's population policy, including its abhorrent practice of forcing parents with more than one or two children to pay exorbitant taxes if they refuse to end another pregnancy by abortion.
In response, Bush froze the $34-million and ordered a State Department review of the UNFPA program in China. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had testified early in the administration that UNFPA "does invaluable work through its programs," was on the spot. So he sent a three-person team to China and said he would await their report. In May, he got back a memo which said, "We find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the PRC (People's Republic of China). We therefore recommend that . . . the $34-million which has already been appropriated be released to UNFPA."
It was not a casual finding. The team interviewed UNFPA and Chinese officials, visited five counties where the joint program was operating, noted the prominent signs in the clinics promising "no birth quotas, no targets," and asked doctors and patients if there were coercive abortion policies now. "All answered in the negative," while conceding that before UNFPA arrived, such things had happened.
That finding echoed what every other inspection team from every other donor nation had reported to its government. But it was not what the White House wanted to hear. So the administration sat on the report for two months (freezing the money) and then, in an astonishing display of hypocrisy, said the $34-million still would not go to UNFPA.
Someone wrote a letter, which Powell signed, saying, "Regardless of the modest size of UNFPA's budget in China ($3.5-million, or 1.5 percent of its planned worldwide spending), or any benefits its programs provide, UNFPA's support of, and involvement in, China's population planning program activities allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion."
Forced abortions still take place in China, as Powell's emissaries confirmed, but apparently not in the counties where UNFPA operates. No U.S. dollars go directly to China. The United States long has insisted that UNFPA put America's contributions into a separate account, and not draw on it for its China programs. Money is fungible, of course, but the real effect of the Bush administration decision is not to "punish" China but to reduce the medical services for women in other poor countries.
Powell, to his credit, said the $34-million will be added to the United States' own overseas health programs _ which operate in barely more than half the number of countries UNFPA reaches.
That is some small consolation. But when our government allows special-interest pleading to cost lives, it shames us all.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.
Washington Post Writers Group