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Pregnancy Politics

January 16, 2002

President Bush faces a test today that pits his stated concern for the welfare of Afghan and other Third World women and children against a demand by abortion opponents. He will decide whether to release the money Congress appropriated late last year to support health care and family planning in Afghanistan and dozens of other poor countries--or, in a misguided nod to anti-abortion groups, cancel it altogether.

Last year, Bush asked Congress for $25 million to support the United Nations Population Fund, known by the acronym UNFPA. The fund is the world's largest source of population control help to developing countries, providing some $5 billion in aid since it started in 1969. That money goes to voluntary family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, efforts to cut infant and maternal mortality and universal primary education. In recognition of just how critical this work is, Congress overwhelmingly supported the president's request, upping the UNFPA appropriation to $34 million from $25 million.

But Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), a dogged foe of abortion, has asked Bush to reverse himself and block that money. Smith insists that the U.N. agency supports family planning activities in China and that China still enforces its one-child-per-couple policy with mandatory abortions and sterilizations. As such, Smith argues, U.S. funding to UNFPA would violate a 1986 congressional ban on sending taxpayer dollars to any organization that the president determines supports coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Smith's charges are unfounded. All activities specifically supported by the U.N. agency, including those in China, are completely voluntary, and the UNFPA says it does not underwrite abortion services anywhere in the world. That's why Bush's secretary of State, Colin L. Powell, testified in support of the agency before Congress a year ago and why the State Department granted the organization $600,000 last November to provide emergency help to Afghan women.

Millions in Afghanistan, Africa and parts of Asia teeter on the edge of desperation. One more pregnancy, one more child could easily push these families into starvation. The U.N. agency estimates that the $34 million could prevent 77,000 child and infant deaths, 60,000 maternal infections or injuries, 4,700 maternal deaths and 2 million unwanted pregnancies.

Shortly after taking office last year, Bush reimposed the so-called global gag rule, banning international family planning groups that receive U.S. money from performing or discussing abortion, even if they did so using money from other sources. As he announced the gag rule, Bush insisted that he still supported international family planning. Today he can prove it.

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