Jane Roberts

(WOMENSENEWS)–Last summer, two U.S. women completely unknown to one another read about the Bush administration’s decision to cut all contributions to the United Nations Population Fund and they got angry. Coincidentally, they also had the same idea. If the White House, reacting to anti-choice lobbying, chose to deny $34 million to the leading international agency working in women’s reproductive health, would ordinary Americans step in and fill the budget gap?

Within weeks the two 60-something women–Lois Abraham, a lawyer practicing in San Francisco and Taos, N. M., and Jane Roberts, a French linguist and teacher from Redlands, Calif.–began e-mail blitzes, got in touch with the Population Fund and its U.S. support committee and connected through them with each other. The “34 Million Friends of UNFPA” campaign was born.

On May 1, Abraham and Roberts announced at a New York news conference that they had raised their first $1 million, with money still arriving daily, including $250,000 that day from Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation in Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, May 6, the campaign moved to Europe for a formal launch in Brussels, the European Union capital. British, French and German donors have already contributed to the Friends, along with Canadians, Mexicans and others in the Americas.

“Americans respond and the letters that we get indicate that they feel deeply about this,” Abraham said in an interview in New York.

In contrast to the official U.S. bitterness that is often displayed toward the United Nations, Abraham said she encountered no hostility or skepticism about the organization, including the fund, at the grassroots level. “I think people are grateful that there’s an agency like UNFPA that applies its expertise and the experience it has had over years of doing really effective work in the countries where it’s invited,” Abraham said, using the initials by which the fund is still sometimes identified because of an earlier name. “When people know this, they respond.”

Polls Support Multilateral Humanitarianism

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., has demonstrated in poll after poll that Americans prefer to see their government tackle large international problems such as population growth or the spread of HIV-AIDS in the company of others, often the United Nations.

In a poll taken in April by the program, a significant majority supported the idea of the United States and other countries providing family-planning assistance worldwide through the United Nations. Only a small minority, Kull reports, thought that family-planning services lead to more abortions.

The Bush administration, which has a policy of not allowing U.S. money to go to any family planning or reproductive health programs that provide abortion, and which has begun to advocate “abstinence-only” sex education in international forums, froze the $34 million already appropriated for the population fund in early 2002.

The administration did so after Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, passed along the findings of a report to the House charging that U.S. money may have been finding its way into what were branded as “coercive” family-planning programs, such as Chinese programs of forced abortion, mandatory sterilizations and fines or imprisonment for noncompliance with laws limiting births. The report was generated by a small anti-choice group called the Population Research Institute, an outgrowth of Human Life International, Front Royal, Va.

An official State Department study group was subsequently sent to China by the administration to check on these reports, which the experts could not substantiate. A British Parliamentary delegation also reported that there was no evidence of Population Fund involvement in coercive programs. The fund has long said that it does not work in Chinese counties where these programs are found. Nevertheless, the administration announced in July that the $34 million would not go to the U.N., despite its own investigation’s conclusions.

The Population Fund estimated that the loss of about 13 percent of its budget would mean the equivalent of 2 million unwanted pregnancies that would not be prevented, 800,000 abortions that would take place because of a lack of alternatives, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths.

Welcome Outpouring of Popular Support

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, a Saudi Arabian national who is executive director of the Population Fund, calls Abraham and Roberts “an inspiration to women and men everywhere.” Speaking at the news conference to mark the first $1 million raised, Obaid said: “The outpouring of support from ordinary American citizens for UNFPA and the work we do has been tremendous. It shows that the American people support the right of women in all countries to have quality health care and to be able to plan their families.”

Obaid announced that the first $510,000 of the money raised will go to a global campaign to end obstetric fistula, a rupture caused by obstructed labor and difficult births that can leave women permanently damaged and often incontinent. The fetus often dies in the process. The fund estimates that over 100,000 women in poor countries suffer from this condition annually.

For the 34 Million Friends of UNFPA, the goal of a citizens’ match to make up for lost official funding is still a long way off. “We do have 33 million to go, and even when we get that, that’s not the end of it,” Abraham said. “The need is so much bigger than the U.S. response has been. Hopefully with this global campaign, we’ll get a response from around the world.”

Barbara Crossette reported from Asia for The New York Times and is the author of several books on the region.

For more information:

United Nations Population Fund–
“34 Million Friends of UNFPA Campaign Hits $1 Million Milestone”:

Program on International Policy Attitudes: