Washington — The Bush administration has intensified its battle against abortion rights worldwide by stating that it no longer can support a landmark international agreement that established reproductive health care as a means to curb population growth.
During a United Nations meeting in Bangkok, a State Department official said the United States would not reaffirm its support for the 1994 "program of action" adopted in Cairo by 179 nations. Louise Oliver, a special assistant in the State Department's population office, also said the Bush administration objected to such terms as "reproductive services" and "reproductive health care" because they imply a right to abortion, according to a senior U.N. official who attended the session.
The administration also is pushing for a new international campaign promoting sexual abstinence, particularly among adolescents, the U.N. official said.
Supporters of the Cairo plan said Friday that withdrawal of U.S. support could undermine the entire international community's approach to population control and women's health care in developing nations. The 8-year-old agreement has dramatically changed how countries around the world work to control population growth from a system driven by targets and quotas which led to involuntary birth control measures to one that focuses on access to health care and education.
"This hit like a bombshell," said the senior U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "People were stunned."
White House policy at work
The Bangkok statement is the Bush administration's most recent attempt to infuse its anti-abortion stance into international policy. This summer, the administration cut off America's $34 million 2002 contribution to the United Nations' family planning program. In May, the administration led a bitter fight to remove references to "reproductive services," which it interpreted to include abortions, from a U.N. document on the well-being of children.
Officials from the State Department and the Health and Human Services Department, both of which were represented at the Bangkok meeting, did not respond to repeated inquiries Thursday and Friday. The U.N. official who attended the meeting a three-day session to prepare for a December conference of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific said that Oliver stated unequivocally that the Bush administration position was non-negotiable.
"I think it is disappointing and incredible at the same time when one of the larger partners in the international community does not feel committed anymore to the Cairo Action Plan and to the internationally agreed agenda," said Agnes Van Ardenne, the Dutch minister for Development Cooperation, who was represented at the meeting by an embassy official based in Thailand. "Poverty reduction will not be successful without reproductive health and without women being able to make their own choices."
'Everyone in the world'
Tim Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs in the Clinton administration, said he had trouble believing Bush really would back off the Cairo agreement. But he said that one of the U.S. delegates to the Bangkok meeting, John M. Klink, who formerly represented the Vatican at the United Nations, has argued "that anything that related to women and women's health is a euphemism for abortion, which it is not."
"Cairo was about empowering women and focusing on the special needs and new circumstances surrounding reproductive health issues," said Wirth, a former Democratic senator who headed the U.S. delegation to the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development in 1994.
"This document was agreed to by everybody in the world, including the Vatican, except the Vatican took exception to language on reproductive rights, saying they didn't want that interpreted to mean abortion. The document affirms that where abortion is legal, it ought to be safe."