President George W. Bush is blocking an international drive to provide teenage sex education because of his belief in chastity before marriage. Health experts say this could fatally undermine the battle against Aids.
Bush has poured millions of dollars into 'true love waits'-style programs in America, which teach that abstinence out of wedlock is the best way to avoid underage pregnancy.
It's just a scandal. In today's world it is really unconscionable that the US should be objecting to a discussion of a full range of topics.
Now he has triggered a row with British and other European Union governments by refusing to sign a United Nations declaration on children's rights - designed to set funding priorities across the Third World - unless pledges on sexual health services are scrapped.
Experts argue that inflicting such views on Aids-stricken nations could have a catastrophic impact on millions of young people, threatening funding for life-saving drives to encourage condom use and safe abortions.
Clare Short's Department for International Development, alongside other EU governments, is insisting there should be no retreat on contraception - setting the stage for a clash at this week's UN summit on children's rights.
The Bush delegation objects on moral grounds to a pledge to guarantee 'reproductive and mental health services' for under-18s and to a pledge to 'protect the right of adolescents to sex education and avoiding unwanted/ early pregnancies'.
Backed by the Vatican, it is understood to have been pushing for guarantees that UN-funded sex education programs will include commitments to preach chastity outside marriage.
That would stop Third World teachers discussing contraception honestly, campaigners say, with fatal consequences. Every minute, five people under 25 are infected with HIV worldwide, while 10 teenage girls undergo an unsafe abortion.
'It's just a scandal,' said Françoise Girard of the International Women's Health Coalition. 'In today's world it is really unconscionable that the US should be objecting to a discussion of a full range of topics.' A similar impasse over the morning-after pill at a UN summit on women's health two years ago - triggered by the Vatican - prompted Short to accuse the Catholic Church of being 'morally destructive' and in an 'unholy alliance with reactionary forces'.
Talks to broker a deal resume tomorrow, but the Bush administration, supported by the Vatican and Islamic countries, is sticking to its guns. Charities fear the UN may be tempted to water down its policy to keep one of its biggest paymasters on board.
The aggressively Christian Bush administration has taken a harder moral line than the Clinton regime, which helped broker international agreement on contraception. Since coming to power, Bush has introduced laws cutting back on the use of the morning-after pill in the US and halted funding for international charities that give advice on abortion.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002