International Women’s Day is March 8, and this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, where representatives from more than 180 countries, agreed on a 20-year program of action aiming to reduce infant and maternal mortality and establish universal access to primary education and family planning. The participants in the Cairo Conference agreed that women’s health and social status are the foundation for political stability, sustainable development, the stabilization of population growth, and the health of children and families. It established that women who are educated and healthy, who are not living in poverty, and who have political and legal rights will want to have fewer children, and will be better able to care for the children they do have. The United States was one of the countries that committed itself to the convention’s goals. Unfortunately, in subsequent years it has failed to fulfill this commitment, and, much worse, has betrayed the fundamental values of the consensus.
The Bush administration has openly attacked abortion, family planning, and comprehensive sex education in this country, but is limited by the Constitution and public opinion. With these limits in mind, the administration made a strategic choice to sacrifice the health of women and children abroad in order to pander to its vigorous supporters in the religious right.
Bush’s first act as president was to enact the Global Gag Rule, which forbids U.S. funding or donations to any international family planning services that provide abortion or even mention the word, regardless of whether or not U.S. funds are supporting the procedure. Countless family planning providers, unwilling to stop giving their patients comprehensive healthcare and counseling, chose to reject the Gag Rule and thus lost their U.S. funding. The United States had never allowed its funds to be used to provide abortions, and the lost funding was often being used to provide contraception, such as condoms, or counseling and screening for STDs and HIV/AIDS. The Gag Rule has probably increased the number of abortions (not to mention maternal deaths) worldwide, by reducing women’s access to contraception. It has also weakened efforts at HIV/AIDS prevention, often in countries where up to 40 percent of the population is infected.
The Bush Administration has made a habit of humiliating and discrediting itself at United Nations meetings, by attempting single-handedly to block consensuses on extreme ideological grounds. At the U.N. Children’s Summit, the United States opposed sex education for teenagers, claiming that the phrase “reproductive health services and education” implies a right to abortion. It went on to oppose the promotion of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention, reiterating this absurd position at the World AIDS Conference in Barcelona. Finally, the United States reversed its position on the Cairo Consensus, officially opposing “the right of couples and individuals to determine freely the number and spacing of their children and to have the information and means to do so.” This about-face was greeted with wild applause from Christian fundamentalists.
The effects of Bush’s $34 million cut to the United Nations’ Family Planning Fund (UNFPA) have been worst of all. UNFPA provides hundreds of thousands of women in 140 countries with family planning and maternal health programs. Worldwide, one woman dies every minute in pregnancy or childbirth, when basic maternal and newborn health services cost only $3 per person per year in developing countries. Maternal health interventions are among the most cost-effective investments on earth, and can stop incalculable suffering of women and children. They can help stabilize populations by allowing women to control the number and spacing of their children, and because high infant mortality rates lead women to overcompensate by having more children than they would if they were sure each child would survive. Moreover, a nation with healthy mothers able to care for their families and work is far more likely to achieve sustainable development, reduce environmental degradation, and maintain a stable economy and political climate.
So why did Bush withhold funding from UNFPA? On the basis of spurious claims that it was involved in coercive abortions in China. Four fact-finding missions were sent to investigate this assertion, and all found that it was completely false. Colin Powell himself testified that UNFPA was doing only enormous good. But Bush, ever-willing to deny the truth in order to curry favor with his extremist constituents, ignored all available facts and the testimony of his own advisors, refusing to reinstate UNFPA funding.
You don’t have to be pro-choice to oppose the Bush administration’s policies on international family planning. There are good reasons why anti-abortion proponents ought to oppose Bush’s ostensibly anti-abortion policies, since they will actually increase the number of abortions worldwide. Many of these abortions will be unsafe or illegal, and will endanger women’s lives. Anyone who believes in a woman’s right to the knowledge and means to control her childbearing and protect herself against HIV/AIDS and other STDs, anyone who believes that the United States should help promote women’s equality and sustainable development, anyone who simply believes that women should not die routinely in childbirth and that infants should not die or be disabled from easily preventable illnesses, should protest the Bush administration’s shameful and shameless policies on international family planning and women’s rights.
Sophie Pinkham is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. She is a member of the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale (RALY).