The Bush administration has decided to withhold $34 million for international family planning programs administered by the United Nations, a move that delights conservatives but intensifies a battle with Congress and women's rights advocates over global assistance and reproductive health policy.
According to administration and congressional sources, the State Department is preparing to announce within the next few days that the administration will not pay its contribution to the U.N. Population Fund. The fund operates projects -- ranging from contraception to abstinence education to gynecological services -- in 142 countries.
The decision, reached by State in coordination with the White House, embraces the contention of abortion opponents and conservatives that the fund tacitly perpetuates a "one-child" policy in China that has led to abortions and sterilizations against women's will. They cite a provision routinely included in the foreign affairs spending bill that forbids funding of groups that allow such practices.
That view is vehemently disputed. A State Department team that traveled to China two months ago to investigate the allegations found no evidence that the U.N.'s program was linked to such abuses, according to officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill. The findings, contained in a report that has not been made public, parallel the conclusions of an investigation conducted in April by members of the British Parliament.
To try to blunt the political and practical repercussions of cutting the $34 million, the administration plans to announce that it will devote the same amount of money to other international aid efforts, possibly to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which subsidize nonprofit relief agencies operating population programs that Bush favors.
"We'll keep the funding at the same level, but we're just not going to fund people who are involved in abortions," a senior administration official said.
The boycott of the U.N. fund is a sequel to the first substantive action of Bush's presidency. Two days after his inauguration, Bush banned the award of family planning grants to international groups that use other sources of money for abortion services. The ban, reversing a Clinton administration policy, was an immediate sign of support for the social conservatives who had helped put Bush in the White House -- and people across the ideological spectrum said yesterday the new move will send a similar message as mid-term elections approach.
The earlier ban differs from the latest move because it had a direct effect on family planning groups, not foreign governments. The U.N. fund works primarily through governments overseas.
The opposition to the U.N. fund represents an administration reversal. Last year, Bush asked Congress to devote $25 million to the program, and the administration eventually agreed with lawmakers to allot as much as $34 million this year. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has praised the program as carrying out "invaluable work."
However, abortion opponents, including the three top leaders of the House, have lobbied the administration to cut off the money, even though the program does not pay directly for abortions. In January, the White House suspended the money on a temporary basis, saying it needed time to examine the complaints about China.
Like many decisions under Bush, this one has been tightly held. Senior administration officials have begun to inform a few key lawmakers, and word is beginning to circulate among allies in interest groups.
Kenneth Connor, president of the Family Research Council, called the move "very sound policy" that "continues to give shoe leather to the president's pro-life commitments." He added, "It's also good politics. It helps the president energize his base."
Opponents on and off Capitol Hill are preparing to fight.
"They are proving the alleged support for women's rights in this administration is shallow, insincere and perhaps hypocritical," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Noting that the State delegation to China reportedly did not find abuses, she said the decision is "an excuse for the administration to do what it's wanted to do all along -- which is to defund family planning."
Feldt and congressional critics said the shift of money to other international relief efforts would be problematic, because it could free the administration to subsidize limited family planning approaches, such as programs that emphasize sexual abstinence before marriage.
Critics also said the assistance might reach fewer countries. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) noted that USAID subsidizes work in 84 nations, almost 60 fewer than the U.N. fund. "The president is saying to the women of Pakistan, Liberia and Iran, 'Later,' " Maloney said.
Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) said he spoke Thursday with Bush senior adviser Karl Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage. "It appears to me that the administration is going to eliminate the UNFPA funds," Greenwood said. "That is a big mistake."
The controversy is certain to play out in Congress in coming months. This week, lawmakers negotiating an emergency addition to this year's budget removed language approved by the Senate that have required the administration to spend the $34 million on the fund.
But a bipartisan group of House and Senate members is trying to impose a more expensive requirement in next year's budget. On Thursday, a Senate committee approved language to compel the administration to spend $50 million on the program next year.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company