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Grass-Roots Donors Fund U.N. Agency

Two activists try to make up for the lost U.S. aid to the family planning body.

May 02, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — When the U.S. government withheld $34 million in aid it had pledged to the U.N. Population Fund last July, Jane Roberts and Lois Abraham "just got mad." Independently, Roberts, a retired teacher from Redlands, Calif., and Abraham, a lawyer from New Mexico, sent e-mails to hundreds of friends and colleagues, saying that if 34 million people gave a dollar each, it could make up the difference.

As the messages zigzagged across the country, word filtered back that there was another "crazy lady" out there with the same idea, said Abraham, and they finally met in New York in October. On Thursday, less than a year after they started, the U.N. Population Fund, known by its French acronym UNFPA, announced that it had received $1 million so far in single dollar bills and small checks from people all over the country and overseas. A quarter of the envelopes came from California.

To the women who started the campaign, it shows the power of individuals and how a grass-roots campaign can catch on like a grass fire.

"Even though our government has chosen not to participate in the work of UNFPA, we the people are participating, and that is a wonderful message to send to the world," Roberts said.

Their story started last June, when the Bush administration decided that the UNFPA indirectly supported agencies in China that promoted coerced abortion, despite conclusions to the contrary by a State Department fact-finding mission.

Roberts wrote a letter to her local paper asking that "as an exercise in outraged democracy, would 34 million Americans please send $1 each? This would right a terrible wrong."

She e-mailed a similar message "to every individual and group I could think of who might be interested," said the 62-year-old former French teacher and tennis coach. Her list included environmental groups, women's groups and human rights organizations. The League of Women Voters and Rotary International picked up what has become known as the "34 Million Friends Campaign" at their local chapters.

At the same time, Abraham, 70, e-mailed friends, mostly lawyers, around the country and asked them to send a dollar and forward the e-mail 10 times. Particularly galling to both of them was the government's apparent refusal to let the facts get in the way of a political policy.

A State Department report concluded after a research trip to China: "We find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or forced sterilization in the [People's Republic of China]. Indeed, UNFPA has registered its strong opposition to such practices."

While announcing the decision last June, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said the administration determined "that while the U.N. is not knowingly involved in these programs of coercion, they support and work with agencies that are involved in that," citing as an example that UNFPA-subsidized computers might be used to print birth control regulations. He added that with the approval of Congress, the $34 million would be added to the $446.5 million the U.S. planned for other population programs in 2002.

But Congress froze the money, refusing to allow it to be spent on alternative programs. The shortfall meant that the UNFPA had to cut back on existing projects last year, including training for midwives and health workers in Algeria and Bangladesh, which will result in more maternal and infant deaths, said UNFPA's executive director Thoraya Obaid. She emphasized that the UNFPA does not support abortion and works to prevent abortion through family planning and education.

Given the range and passion of viewpoints within the United States on abortion, the politics of funding family planning and health care have been traditionally difficult for Washington to negotiate. In 1985, President Reagan banned U.S. funding for any overseas agency that even provided or indirectly supported abortions. President Clinton rescinded the order, but President Bush revived it.

The issue regained attention because of Bush's $15-billion AIDS relief package for African countries, which passed the House Thursday. Conservatives worry that some of the money may find its way to health-care centers that provide contraception and abortions. One billion dollars is earmarked for the U.N.'s Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which the UNFPA works with, so in the most roundabout of ways, the UNFPA may get its two cents' worth. Though still a long way from their $34-million goal, Roberts and Abraham said they hope the million dollar mark will create more momentum for the campaign. On Thursday, at a UNFPA news conference honoring their effort, Ted Turner's U.N. Foundation pledged $250,000 in matching funds.

Their next stop is Brussels, and then perhaps Asia, in an attempt to expand the campaign globally. "There is no better way to spend a dollar than on educating women," Roberts said. "Letting them plan their families gives them all sorts of other choices, and lets them participate in all aspects of society. It has a ripple effect on so many other things." Just like a simple e-mail.

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