Barbara Boxer

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–By a 216-211 vote, the House of Representatives refused to restore $34 million this week for the U. N. Population Fund, a significant setback in the battle to overturn abortion-related restrictions on U.S.-support of international family planning aid.

There were some surprises, including the fact that 31 Republicans voted against the Bush White House and sided with 179 Democrats in supporting a move by Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, to restore the agency’s funding.

Another surprise was that some previous supporters of the agency this time turned against it, following the lead of anti-abortion spear-carrier, Rep. Christopher Smith, New Jersey Republican. Most notable among the switches: Rep. James Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, who opposes abortion but supports family planning and had backed the agency’s “safe motherhood” and family planning policies in the past but this time joined Smith in co-sponsoring the move to defeat Crowley’s funds-restoration amendment.

It wasn’t clear if the House vote was affected by last week’s surprise victory in the Senate for a separate initiative by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. Nine Republicans backed Boxer’s move to overturn the so-called “global gag rule” that has barred U.S. foreign aid funds to international family planning groups that provide abortions, counsel their patients about the availability of abortion or lobby their own governments for change in abortion regulations.

“I think the fact that we won on (overturning the gag rule) ginned up both sides,” says former Democratic congressman Peter H. Kostmayer, now head of the 70,000-member Population Connection nonprofit.

He held out hope that the agency still could win funding in future House and Senate votes on the appropriations bills that fund the State Department, including funds that go to the United Nations.

“I think both of these votes are very good news. I think we’ve got these guys on the run. This is a very conservative House and we barely lost. This is international family planning which traditionally has bipartisan support. It’s possible for the White House to win this, but they’ll have to spend a lot of political capital doing it,” said Kostmayer in an interview with Women’s eNews.

Insiders say that many polls see the 2004 presidential and congressional elections approaching and are beginning to shift their political ground. In particular, Republican moderates are restless.

The very success of the Christian Right groups, observers say, has generated a backlash of sorts. Making abortion the litmus test for all issues has its limits, some politicians say, including several dozen House Democrats who oppose abortion but are looking for a way to show that they support family planning.

In addition, President Bush’s embrace of massive new funds to fight HIV-AIDS in Africa has opened the door for arguments that international family planning agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund need all the financial help they can get. President Bush has withheld $34 million from the U.N. agency, ostensibly because its programs in China amount to support for coerced abortions, an allegation disputed by many, including the State Department. The report from State said, in effect, that the agency’s work with the Chinese government in 32 (out of 3000) provinces had led to success in finding other ways to curb their explosive population growth.

In the House, Crowley had squared off against Smith in pushing to restore funds to the agency. Smith has lambasted the agency as a major provider of abortions and also insists that the agency backs China’s abortion policy.

The restoration of $34 million has become a rallying point for many advocates and has spawned an international grassroots campaign to raise the funds from individuals, one dollar at a time.

Crowley’s proposal in the House would have tightened the language in the law that authorizes the president to deny funding to organizations or nations that support or perform coercive abortions. His change would have made clear that any U.N. agency that overtly supports China’s coercive abortions will not be eligible for U.S. donations.

Since the State Department report found the U.N. agency did not support, let alone perform, coercive abortions, the thinking is that Bush would be less able to withhold funds this time. Crowley’s proposal, attached to the State Department authorization bill, provided $50 million in funds to the agency for the next two years.

Close Vote

The 216-211 vote could have been even closer if some of the eight non-voters had cast their votes, including presidential contender, Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Another pro-agency voter absent from the count was Rep. Jim Greenwood–who was so busy rounding up Republicans for the Crowley amendment he forgot to vote before the gavel fell. If they had voted, the vote still would have been short by three.

The Christian right groups are having none of Crowley’s arguments. They still insist that U.N. the agency backs coercive abortion. The Crowley vote would be “a watershed vote” for pro-life Americans, warns Concerned Women for America.

They hadn’t seen Boxer’s move coming, however. The Traditional Values Coalition noted with shock that nine Republicans had sided with Boxer in the 53-43 Senate vote to overturn the gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy. It had been instituted President Ronald Reagan, lifted by President Bill Clinton–and then put in place again by President George W. Bush on his second day in office, Jan. 22, 2001.

Crowley was lobbying for the money as a family-planning issue. He says the agency is the only U.N. group which intervenes significantly on behalf of women needing the tools of “safe motherhood”–to be able to gain access to contraceptives to space their children and to have “clean birthing” conditions.

“To some, this is an opportunity to set the marker of where they want to be–to express support for family planning, even if you are against abortion,” he says.

He talks frequently of his trips to Africa and Asia, including one recent trip to Malawi where “I sat on a grass mat and listened to a birthing official talk about her needs–for kerosene for nighttime birthing and for clean razor blades. Those are the kind of personal experiences that relate to my colleagues. It has an impact.”

One Crowley convert read The New York Times article about the agency’s major role in helping the more than 2 million African women with fistula, a debilitating consequence of birthing experiences gone awry–something that is virtually unknown in the West.

Redefining of Terms Pays Off in Senate

The re-definition of terms also paid off in the Senate.

Only three of the nine Republicans who voted with Boxer could be called pro-choice; the others went with her because they were persuaded the gag-rule was a free speech issue–something that would be declared unconstitutional in this country.

“How can we export a policy that denies free speech and still say we support democracy?” Boxer asked during the Senate debate. “These organizations face two choices: They can either refuse U.S. assistance or give up the right to speak freely.”

The Republican Pro-Choice Coalition also has joined the fray. The honorary chair of the coalitions’ political action committee, former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, recently lambasted his fellow Republicans who go overboard in insisting on 100 percent purity on issues such as abortion, which he said is an issue in flux in society. This was seen, accurately, as an attack on the Bush base of Christian right groups.

The coalition’s co-chair, Jennifer Stockman, said there are tangible reasons for Simpson’s agitation: When religious right politicians go after pro-choice Republicans in the primary, the Republicans may win the primary but invariably lose in the general election.

“Republicans cannot win the swing Democratic states with an intolerant message–so if you’re advising the president, you don’t have to be a big brain to know that he has to move back toward the center,” she said.

Peggy Simpson, a veteran public affairs reporter, recently returned to Washington after a decade in Central-Eastern Europe.

For more information:

U.N. Population Fund:

Also see Women’s eNews, February 25, 2003:
“Bush Extends Global Gag Rule to AIDS Funds”:

Also see Women’s eNews, March 08, 2003:
“$34 Million Friends Campaign Expands to Europe”: