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Afghan Women Get Caught in US Abortion Politics
22 January 2002
Stop the sanitary napkins!
It is an unlikely cause but, nonetheless, the Bush administration takes it seriously.
The White House is holding back funds to the United Nations Population Fund. At the moment, the group rushes clean underwear, sanitary napkins and sterile delivery kits - soap, a string, a clean razor blade - to Afghan women in refugee camps.
These are, you may recall, the same women first lady Laura Bush said she was so deeply concerned about in November.
She lamented the way the Taliban stripped them of their rights and their dignity. She said the radical fundamentalists who had ruled Afghanistan denied women care for even their most basic health needs. The first lady then invited representatives of the Afghan women in for tea.
Offering the women crumpets in the White House is one thing. Standing up for them against the fringe of the anti-abortion lobby is, apparently, quite another.
The president just signed a foreign-operations funding bill that included up to $34 milion for the UN program. The money came after the usual row in Congress between the most extreme opponents of abortion - those who use it as a pretext to stop all family planning - and the bipartisan majority that favors money for women's reproductive care, short of U.S.-financed abortion. The House vote in favor of funding was 357 to 66. In the Senate, it was unanimous.
The president, who has said he believes abortion is murder, included $25 million for the UN population program in his own budget last year. In October, just before the spectacular White House show of solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, the State Department came up with another $600,000 in emergency money for the group to help the refugees.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has more than once cleared the fund of the false allegation, spread by anti-abortion extremists, that the group promotes forced abortion and sterilization, particularly in China but also, supposedly, in Kosovo.
It doesn't. Nor does it perform abortions, though it supports treatment of complications from unsafe abortion.
Powell has concluded the work of the UN population fund is "fully consistent with overall U.S. efforts in developing countries to raise the standard of living, reduce poverty and lessen disparities of wealth among countries."
But Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has not.
He fired off a letter to the White House that rounded up all the usual allegations. Contrary to the State Department, the General Accounting Office and international overseers, Smith has concluded that UN family-planning workers are the moral equivalent of the Nazis.
And so the White House quivers. It has, for now, held the State Department back from disbursing funds while it figures out what on Earth to do. The administration has held high-level meetings at which the possibility of reducing the UN group's money - or cutting it off altogether - has been discussed. No decision has been made, not least because today is the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade case legalizing abortion. It is not a day to offer anti-abortion activists anything but obedience.
The White House tries to make this appear a matter of budgeting and not of capitulating to those who would, in the cause of denying women abortion, deny them clean underpants. But this is a ruse.
Congress did appropriate more than the president requested. The same is true for any number of accounts, including some involving the United Nations, which - curiously enough - aren't in dispute. There has never been a hold on highway spending because of presidential pique at congressional generosity toward roads and bridges.
And anyway, why did we like the UN population fund in October, when its aid to Afghan women fit into the White House public-relations plan, but don't appreciate it so very much now?
The White House will not answer. Spokesman Sean McCormack refused to say whether President George W. Bush concurs with critics who charge the UN population fund is a dangerous predator - or with his secretary of state, who sees it as a dedicated provider of needed care.
One day, Bush must decide. His choice will show whether he believes the world's women deserve substantive health care or a nice, soothing cup of tea.