Washington Watch: Administration defunds U.N. Population Fund

By Cynthia Dailard
Senior Public Policy Associate
The Alan Guttmacher Institute
Washington, DC

This summer, the Bush administration officially announced it was cutting off all U.S. support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest multilateral population assistance agency in the world. This decision was a major victory for anti-family planning members of Congress, who have long alleged that UNFPA’s small program in China indirectly supports coercive practices sanctioned by the Chinese government as a result of its "one-child-per-family" policy. And it represents only the latest twist in a long-standing political saga that at times has placed the United States — the world’s largest population assistance donor country — at odds with UNFPA.

Ironically, more than 30 years ago, the United States was a driving force behind the establishment of UNFPA, whose mandate is to "assist developing countries, at their request, in dealing with their population problems in the forms and means best suited to the individual countries’ needs." The agency provides assistance in approximately 140 countries and supports the delivery of maternal and child health care and family planning services.

A major supplier of contraceptives around the world, UNFPA also devotes substantial resources toward preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, addressing the unique reproductive health needs of young people, and enhancing the status of women. The agency provides no support for abortion services.

In the 1980s, opponents of population assistance latched onto UNFPA’s small program in China as an excuse to defund the program. In 1985, they passed legislation, known as the "Kemp-Kasten," amendment that prohibits U.S. funding to any agency when there is a presidential finding that the agency directly or indirectly supports coercive abortion or sterilization. While the Reagan administration acknowledged that UNFPA’s own program did not support abortion or coercion, it declared that the agency’s very presence in China indirectly supported the country’s coercive one-child-per-family policy. Deeming the agency guilty by association, President Reagan cut off all U.S. funding to UNFPA, thus punishing not only the China program but also the other countries where UNFPA worked.

U.S. funding was not restored until President Clinton took office in 1993 and determined that UNFPA did not indirectly or directly support coercion. Nonetheless, Congress ensured that strings remained attached: The U.S. contribution to UNFPA would remain in a separate account, none of which could be used in China. Moreover, for every dollar of non-U.S. funding spent by UNFPA in China, the U.S. contribution to the agency would be reduced by one dollar. This punishment applied to no other agency working in China and receiving U.S. support.

Suggesting that it looked at favorably on UNFPA, the Bush administration’s fiscal year 2002 budget recommended $25 million for UNFPA. In support of this request, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified in Congress that UNFPA "does invaluable work through its programs in maternal and child health care, voluntary family planning, screening for reproductive tract cancers, breast-feeding promotion, and HIV/AIDS prevention." Congress would go beyond the president’s request by setting funding for the program at $34 million.

Conservative members of Congress, however, continued to insist that the Bush administration re-institute the funding ban, which prompted the White House to send a three-member fact-finding team to China to assess the situation. The team’s report, issued in May, found no evidence that UNFPA is in violation of the Kemp-Kasten provision and recommended continued funding of the agency. Indeed, the program’s supporters have long argued that it is a force for good in China and it serves as a model for providing family planning services on a voluntary basis.

Nonetheless, the administration succumbed to right-wing pressure when it notified Congress that it would withhold the $34 million from UNFPA.

The "evidence" cited as a violation of Kemp-Kasten is $200,000 (in non-U.S. funds) provided by UNFPA to the Chinese State Family Planning Commission, which fines Chinese couples that exceed their birth quotas. Thus, wrote the administration, the agency’s funding "allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion," even though, as the administration itself notes, "arguments can be made that UNPFA is undertaking good-faith educational and other efforts to improve the lives of the people of [China] and assist them in family planning decisions."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for funding UNFPA, deems the administration’s position "an embarrassment and a travesty."

"It is ludicrous that because there is coercion in China — coercion we all know about and deplore — the administration is barring all U.S. support for use anywhere by the world’s largest family planning organization . . . . UNFPA’s mission is to promote alternatives to coercion and abortion and to prevent the spread of AIDS, and that is exactly what UNFPA should be doing [in China]," said Leahy. "We do not send foreign aid to countries that are doing everything right — we send it to try to make things better. That is also UNFPA’s mission."