Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Obama administration’s decision to restore U.S. support for the United Nations Population Fund has reignited controversy over how China implements it one-child policy.

The population fund, or UNFPA, has a presence in more than 140 countries.

Its mission is to provide aid for family planning and promote women’s rights worldwide, with the aim of assuring universal access to reproductive health services.

“The main priority of the UNFPA is to prevent women from dying giving birth in Africa, South America and Asia. That is our priority number one,” said Abubakar Dungus, a UNFPA spokesman.

Mr. Obama’s decision to restore U.S. funding to the UNFPA marked the latest shift in a political see-saw that dates back to the Reagan administration and reflects conflicting agendas of Republicans and Democrats.

President Reagan cut off funding and President Clinton restored it. President George W. Bush again cut off funding and one of Mr. Obama’s first acts in office was to resume it.

Critics assert that the organization has had an overly cozy relationship with the Chinese government, which tries to limit women to having one child, a policy that has sometimes been enforced through coercion.

“It’s very clear that the U.N. Population Fund is a cheerleader for the Chinese family planning program, is funding the program, and turns a blind eye to forced abortion and forced sterilization,” said Stephen Mosher, and president of the Population Research Institute, a pro-life group that has been harshly critical of UNFPA.

Mr. Mosher, a longtime critic of China’s one-child policy, sent a private team to China’s Sihui county in Guangdong province in 2001 to investigate UNFPA’s involvement with China’s population program.

The team found that voluntary family planning was virtually nonexistent and forced abortions and sterilizations were official policy. Women who refused these procedures risked punitive fines, destruction of their homes, and even imprisonment, according to a subsequent report filed by the team.

The local UNFPA official operated out of the Office of Family Planning in Sihui, according to the investigators.

“It is inconceivable that the U.N. population official who worked in the same office did not know what was going on,” Mr. Mosher said.

Other investigations, however, have come to different conclusions.

The State Department sent three ambassadors to China in 2002 to investigate whether forced abortions and sterilizations had occurred.

The team’s findings contradicted those of PRI, reporting that, while the Chinese government was still involved in coercive population control, there was no evidence that the UNFPA had any involvement. A British investigation produced the same result.

Nevertheless, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote a letter to Congress shortly thereafter recommending that funding for UNFPA be denied under a law known as the Kemp-Kasten amendment, which forbids the U.S. government from funding coercive abortions and sterilizations.

Mr. Powell said that computers and vehicles donated by the UNFPA had been used by the Chinese to enforce their population policies.

Critics charged that Mr. Powell was acting under political pressure and said UNFPA was vindicated by the State Department’s findings.

But Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and a long-time abortion foe, said he also toured China and heard stories similar to those documented by PRI.

He said that the State Department and British delegations had been shown only “Potemkin village” towns, where residents had been threatened into lying about the family planning program. He also charged that the teams had spent most of their time in Beijing with Chinese officials.

“They were having the equivalent of a barbecue instead of investigating,” Mr. Smith said.

On his own trip to China in 2004, Mr. Smith said he spoke with the head of China’s population control program, Peng Peiyun. When questioned about forced abortions and sterilizations, Mr. Peng denied any coercion and pointed to UNFPA’s involvement as proof that all family planning in China was voluntary.

“The United States should not help UNFPA cover up China’s crimes against women and children,” Mr. Smith said.

UNFPA has countered by claiming it neither supports nor provides abortions. They have also downplayed reports of coercive population control in China, saying that their presence has helped persuade the Chinese government to adopt a policy of voluntary and abundant reproductive services that translates into fewer abortions.

Dr. Nafis Sadik, former director of UNFPA, said that while the one-child policy has not been “officially rescinded” in China, its enforcement is very rare thanks in large part to UNFPA.

“If you go and visit the rural areas of China, they’re all pursuing economic wealth. In fact, they have more children, they have three or four, and they all keep saying, we should not have had so many children,” she said.

Dr. Sadik was awarded the Population Prize Award by the Chinese State Family Planning Commission in 2002. She said she had received the honor despite the fact that she had given them a “hard time” about their coercive policies.

In her acceptance speech in Beijing, Dr. Sadik praised the progress made by China on population issues. “Looking back, I feel a great sense of pride for the Chinese Government and people for their support to UNFPA and to me, personally, I also feel proud that UNFPA made the wise decision to resist external pressures and continued its fruitful cooperation with China,” she said.

Her assessment is at odds with another U.S. State Department assessment a year ago, which concluded that China’s one-child policy was still rigorously enforced and that violators faced potential job loss, fines and even property destruction. Occasional cases of coercive abortions and sterilizations still occurred at the provincial level, according to the State Department. A 2005 report by Amnesty International contained similar findings.

In 2008, China’s family planning minister told the China Daily newspaper that the one-child policy will be maintained for at least another decade to stem population growth in the world’s most populous nation, saying that the law would only be adjusted if birth rates declined.

Mr. Dungus, the UNFPA spokesman, would not comment when asked about coercive methods in China. He said that China’s 1.3 billion people have a right to family planning services and that any links between coercion and the UNFPA had been discredited.

The Chinese embassy did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Anika Rahman, president of Americans for UNFPA, said that support for the fund has nothing to do with abortion and everything to do with the rights of impoverished women.

“UNFPA stands for the health and dignity of women everywhere. We know that UNFPA’s work is lifesaving work,” she said.

In addition to providing reproductive services, the UNFPA also works to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, trains midwives and promotes gender equality.

Still, the debate is likely to intensify. UNFPA representative Arie Hoekma, noting increases in divorce and out-of-wedlock births at a colloquium in Mexico City last month, said such changes in the family structure “are in the presence of a weakening of the patriarchal structure, as a result of the disappearance of the economic base that sustains it and because of the rise of the new values centered in the recognition of fundamental human rights.”

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