House panel votes to eliminate funding for UN family planning program

In a move harkening back to the Bush administration, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted this week to eliminate all U.S. funding for a United Nations program that delivers family planning services to the developing world.

The Republicans maintain that the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which operates in more than 150 countries, uses the money to support involuntary abortions in China – a claim the Democrats and the UNFPA dispute.

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President Obama has asked for almost $48 million for the UNFPA as part of his 2012 budget blueprint.

“China’s policy of coerced abortion is one of the most visible and deplorable human rights abuses," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), head of the Foreign Affairs panel, said during Wednesday's markup on the defunding bill. "It has contributed directly to the elimination of millions of young girls, which has increased the demand for trafficked women and girls in the region.

“But instead of condemning China’s behavior, UNFPA not only supports China’s coercive ‘One Child’ policy, but commends it as a ‘model’ for population programs across the globe."

Democrats on the panel offered 10 amendments designed to alleviate such concerns, targeting the funding specifically for family planning, safe childbirth and emergency reproductive healthcare programs. All were shot down by the GOP majority.

Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs panel, said the Republicans' contention that the UNFPA funds abortions is simply false.

"I know that discussing UNFPA generates a lot of emotion among some of my colleagues, but that doesn’t mean that passionate arguments should be allowed to trump the facts," Berman said Wednesday in his opening remarks. "UNFPA does not promote abortion as a method of family planning. Period."

The Republicans dismissed such arguments, arguing that because money is fungible, U.S. taxpayers should not be contributing to the UNFPA at all. 

"Directing U.S. funding to UNFPA activities in other areas of the world simply free up other funding for their China program," Ros Lehtinen said.

The panel passed the proposal on a party-line vote of 23-17.

In 2002, a team of State Department investigators surveyed China's UNFPA projects and found no evidence to support the GOP's concerns.

"Based on what we heard, saw and read, we find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the People's Republic of China," the team reported.

The report had little effect on U.S. policy.

"UNFPA’s support of, and involvement in, China’s population-planning activities allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion," then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2002. "Therefore, it is not permissible to continue funding UNFPA at this time."

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Beginning that same year, President George W. Bush eliminated the U.S. contribution to the UNFPA – then $34 million – and continued that policy for the remainder of his White House tenure.

Women's healthcare groups say such a strategy – then and now – is both politically motivated and threatens the well-being of poor women across the globe.

“More than 215 million women around the world want to delay or prevent pregnancy but do not have access to contraception," Latanya Mapp Frett, vice president-global at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Thursday in a statement.

"Cutting off women’s access to vital services will only drive up rates of unintended pregnancy and pregnancy complications, leading to higher global rates of unsafe abortion and maternal death."

The global population is expected to hit 7 billion at the end of this month.