Jill W. Sheffield

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee will hold a hearing today that will try to explain why President Bush has failed to release the $34 million that Congress has already appropriated for the United Nations Population Fund. While the president is evidently trying to decide which of two potential backlashes from the decision will hurt him least politically, his delay on releasing these funds is costing the lives of millions of women around the world and jeopardizing the $25 million allocated for next year’s budget as well.

The population fund supports family planning and reproductive health care programs in 140 developing countries, which often provide the only basic health care for miles around. If the president does not release the funds, he will infuriate voters at home and allies abroad who overwhelmingly support international family planning. Bush himself pledged during his election campaign that he was one of those people.

But if Bush releases the money, he risks incensing his party’s radical right wing. These critics claim that population fund is not only engaged in “safe motherhood” work, which they call a code phrase for abortion. These critics also say the population fund is active in China, where the government has enforced its one-child policy by coercing women to have abortions.

Not only is “safe motherhood” about providing mothers in labor rudimentary tools for preventing infection, but also the agency is actively fighting China’s hard line, beginning its work there only after China agreed to the population fund’s demand that it end coercion of any kind, including forced abortions, in the areas in which the agency would offer its services. Nonetheless, critics insist that funding the agency at all sends the “wrong message” to China.

Bush has just completed a formal visit to China, where presumably he expressed his concerns about China’s population-control program. That done, he should now demonstrate his concern for women’s and children’s lives and his avowed support for family planning by rejecting the unfounded accusations against the population fund and releasing its much-deserved funding.

Far more is at stake here than Bush’s re-election prospects. The population fund estimates that $34 million for family planning would prevent 77,000 child and infant deaths, 60,000 maternal infections or injuries, and 4,700 maternal deaths in the 140 countries where its programs are at work. In Nigeria, for example, where 45,000 women each year die in childbirth, the population fund spent $6.6 million to equip 900 maternity clinics and train as many midwives across the country to handle delivery complications, such as breech births, excessive bleeding and shock. In the Philippines, a mere $2,250 grant was enough to open a women’s health clinic in a shantytown outside Manila, where no maternity care was previously available.

United Nation’s Work Has Saved Millions of Lives

“Safe motherhood” work is just what it sounds like. The population fund’s safe-motherhood kit, distributed by the thousands to desperate pregnant women in Rwandan refugee camps, for example, contains the following: one plastic sheet (to provide a clean place to lie down), two pieces of string (to tie off the umbilical cord), a clean razor blade (to cut the cord) and a bar of soap (to prevent infection). That’s it. The State Department was so impressed by population fund’s work with Afghan refugee mothers that last November it allocated an extra $600,000 to the agency.

The truth is that the population fund’s critics are spreading misinformation about the agency by suggesting that defunding it will prevent abortions. But population fund does not fund, encourage or provide abortions in China or anywhere else, and in fact its family-planning programs actually prevent abortions by providing education and contraceptive services to help make sure that children are wanted. The population fund estimates that the $34 million would help prevent some 2 million unwanted pregnancies worldwide, and as a result, would prevent at least 800,000 induced abortions. President Bush must try to see past the fogbank of misrepresentation to the facts.

A year ago, the president was roundly criticized across the globe for imposing a gag rule that barred overseas groups receiving U.S. funds from talking about abortion–discussing it in public debate, counseling about it, or referring a woman elsewhere for one, even to preserve her health or future fertility–even if the groups used their own money. The administration excused this unfair restraint of free speech on the grounds that the president still supported family planning. The fact that he requested $25 million for the population fund this year was described as proof of that support. Congress agreed it was a good idea, and raised the sum to $34 million. Yet those funds are now in danger of being eliminated altogether for no reason other than the radical right’s fact-free opposition.

We must not let this happen. The president needs to hear from women who understand the true value of population fund’s work. Women’s lives are at stake, and that must be part of the balance the president is weighing in a decision that otherwise seems to be pure politics.

Jill Sheffield is president of Family Care International, a New York-based nonprofit that works to improve women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in developing countries, with a special emphasis on making pregnancy and childbirth safer.

For more information:

Family Care International:

United Nations Population Fund: