WASHINGTON — A coalition of pro-choice religious groups is accusing the White House of inadvertently helping to prop up Beijing’s coercive population-control policies.
The coalition, composed of representatives from Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups, is urging Congress to restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund that was cut last year by the White House. Fresh off a trip to China, leaders of the coalition are disputing Bush administration claims that the U.N. agency, also known as the UNFPA, has supported Beijing’s controversial family-planning policies, which include coerced abortions.
Instead, they claim, the White House is enabling China to force more women to abort.
Under pressure from congressional Republicans and conservative activists, the administration floated the charges last year, reversing its initial decision to fund the U.N. agency. White House officials claimed that the agency’s working relationship with the Chinese government made it ineligible for aid under an American law that prohibits federal funding of coercive population-control programs.
The interfaith coalition, however, is preparing a report arguing that the U.N. agency has actually promoted reforms in China and con- the U.N. agency has actually promoted reforms in China and con-fronted Beijing over its policies. By refusing to fund the agency, coalition leaders say, the White House is actually hampering efforts to reform the Chinese system.
“If we walk away from China, China will not be inspired by Western thought, which will be damaging to the people of China and damaging to the world,” said Nancy Kipnis, vice president of the National Council of Jewish Women and a member of the interfaith coalition’s recent mission to China.
The U.N. agency, Kipnis said, only spends $3.5 million in China, compared to the $3.5 billion spent by the Chinese government on population control. The agency currently runs programs in only 33 out of China’s 2,400 counties.
Coalition officials, however, say that hundreds of other counties are considering policy reforms advocated by the agency. Its non-coercive philosophy “is now infiltrating the Chinese government and the Chinese people,” Kipnis said.
The Bush administration surprised observers when in 2001 it provided the agency with $21.5 million, initially determining that it was not in violation of the law. But a year later, under pressure from congressional Republicans, Bush changed his mind, withholding the $34 million appropriated by Congress for the agency. He did so despite several reports — including one conducted by the British government and another by a panel commissioned by the Bush administration — that concluded that the U.N. agency was not involved in coercive policies.
These studies were challenged by only one report, issued by the Population Research Institute, a Virginia-based organization dedicated to fighting human-rights abuses related to birth control policies of governments worldwide. The institute’s report was based on a trip to China by one paralegal, along with interpreters and a videographer. Upon her return from China in the fall of 2001, the institute’s representative, Josephine Guy, testified in Congress and issued a report which stated that “UNFPA supports China’s family-planning policy” directly with funding, indirectly by publicly praising it, “and through its complicity with the implementation of policies which are fundamentally coercive in principle and practice.”
Leaders of the interfaith coalition told the Forward that their recent trip to China was to a large extent organized in response to the institute’s report. The coalition wanted an independent investigation, said Reverend Carlton Veazey, a participant in the recent mission and president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a pro-choice Washington-based group.
Participants in the coalition’s mission said that their conclusions were more reliable than those offered in the institute’s report, noting their documentation of the agency’s overall activities in the relatively few areas of China in which it now operates.
Coalition members did find during their trip that the Chinese authorities still impose so-called “social compensation fees,” a fine levied against parents who have exceeded their child-bearing quota. Under the influence of the U.N. agency, however, China’s government has recently scaled back its reliance on such fines, said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, the group that organized the recent mission.
Kissling and her colleagues acknowledge that their report would offer little to undercut the Bush administration’s chief argument for withholding the funds to the U.N. agency. In a legal review issued in July 2002, the State Department said that the agency was working with the birth-control division of the Chinese government. Furthermore, the State Department claimed, the Chinese government could — and in fact did — use agency resources and equipment to promote its coercive policies. “In the context of the People’s Republic of China, supplying equipment to the very agencies that employ coercive practices amounts to support or participation in the management of the program,” the State Department concluded.
“We think it’s an incorrect position,” Kissling said. “We think that the strategy of engagement with the Chinese family-planning program, which the UNFPA has chosen, is the right strategy.… The chances of improving volunteerism and non-coercion in the Chinese family planning program rests with engagement. [You] don’t make change if you don’t talk to people and you don’t work with them in a collaborative way.”
At various times during the past two decades, the U.N. agency has received between $30 million and $46 million annually from the American government, constituting between 12% and 27% of the agency’s yearly worldwide budget. The allocations have long upset anti-abortion members of Congress and conservative officials in previous Republican administrations.
More than once during the early 1980s, the Reagan administration withheld funds from the agency equal to the amount that it spent on programs in China, pending assurances that no support was being offered for Beijing’s coercive policies. In 1985, Congress went one step further, adopting an amendment to its foreign aid appropriations bill that prohibited funding for any organization that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” The Reagan administration and the first Bush administration ruled that under the measure — known as the Kemp-Kasten amendment — the U.N. agency was ineligible for funding because of its work in China. Both administrations did so despite reports — one of them produced by the Reagan administration itself — that concluded that the agency neither funded abortions nor supported cChina’s coercive policies.
The Clinton Administration resumed funding the U.N. agency, albeit at lower levels those that preceded the 1985 amendment.