Washington Over the years, I thought my mind had become boggle-proof. It's a side effect of journalism. Sooner or later, we just lose the ability to be astonished by anything the government says. We lose the capacity to be overwhelmed by even the most nimble political spin.
But the Bush administration challenged all my insulation this week when it withheld $34 million in international family planning funds designated for the United Nations. The stated reason and I use the word "reason" loosely is that the U.N.'s Population Fund (UNFPA) works in China. Any money to the agency, it said, helps the "Chinese government to implement more effectively its programs of coercive abortion."
Well, allow me to explain the circuit breaker on outrage. None of the money we give to the Population Fund could go to China anyway. It's against the law. It's also against the law for any U.S. money to fund abortions overseas. I know this and so do the folks in the Bush administration. Worst of all, and here's the clincher, they also know that the United Nations is not part of the problem of Chinese coercive policies; it's part of the solution.
Nevertheless, Colin Powell, acting as front man for the White House, wrote, "If there is a single principle that unifies Americans with conflicting views on the subject, it is the conviction that no woman should be forced to have an abortion." True enough. But Powell failed to mention that this single principle also unifies the United Nations.
The United Nations is on record all over the place as opposing the forced sterilizations and abortions that have too often accompanied China's one-child policy. It spends only $3.5 million of a $270 million budget in the People's Republic, but it is spent in 32 counties in a deliberate effort to show the Chinese government that voluntary family planning works.
"Here are the horrible things we've done in China," says the Fund's Sarah Craven with a good deal of restraint. "We've published materials letting the Chinese know the rights they have under U.N. human rights treaties. We've contracted to train family planning workers on quality care and informed consent. We've paid so Chinese family planning workers can go to other countries and see how it works. And we have a women's empowerment initiative to work on literacy and health care."
Indeed here comes another boggle the rate of abortion has decreased in the places where the United Nations has worked. "We're there to give the women of China hope," she concludes.
Remember last year when the secretary of state praised the UNFPA's "invaluable work" around the world? Since then, a team of British parliamentarians, including an ardent pro-life leader, went to China and concluded that the UNFPA was a force for positive change. Since then, a three-member team sent by our government also gave the United Nations a clean report card.
But in an act of public humiliation worthy of Mao's Red Guard, Powell was forced to publicly recant and deliver the party line of the right wing.
No one is making light of coercion in China. Certainly not those who believe in a woman's right to decide. But it's fair to ask whether we change policy best by engaging or disengaging with another government.
Just last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson proudly announced that we would work with China indeed with the same health ministry that administers population policies on issues of HIV-AIDS. Meanwhile, we sign trade agreements and explore closer military ties. Has the old two-China policy morphed into a new two-China policy? One for family planning and one for everything else?
The Bush administration says it will give the family planning money to our own Agency for International Development. Fine. But let's remember that USAID operates in 84 countries, compared to the UNFPA's 140. It operates unilaterally. And why, by the way, do we need to replicate programs in, say, Afghanistan?
This is the story. In an effort to punish China, the same China that we engage with every day, we are going to withhold money, which wouldn't go to China anyway, from the rest of the world's women.
As Amy Coen of Population Action International says, "This is the man who supports women's rights? This administration is placating and throwing red meat to a political base that doesn't believe in family planning."
Follow the bouncing boggle: In an effort to punish a U.N. operation that "gives hope to women in China," we are going to withdraw $34 million that pays for midwives and hospitals, birthing kits and contraceptives. And to appease the domestic "right-to-life" lobby, we are going to withhold enough money to prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 4,700 maternal deaths, and over 77,000 infant and child deaths.
If Bush gets away with this one, I'm definitely gonna take myself in for some new boggle-proofing.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.