THERE LIVES, in Thoraya Ahmed Obaid's mind, the story of one Afghan woman who turned up in a refugee camp.
She was 32 years old. She'd had 16 pregnancies. Eight of her children survived. The woman, herself, is lucky to be alive, given that one out of 15 Afghan women dies in childbirth.
"The basic right is for women not to die while they are having a baby," said Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Tomorrow is International Women's Day. At the United Nations, first lady Laura Bush is guest at another celebration of freedom for Afghan women, a cause she's taken to with enthusiasm.
Obaid is also to speak about the rights of women, including the right to make choices about their own reproductive health. This is necessary, Obaid said in an interview at her New York office, before women can secure the freedoms of education and economic participation and political empowerment.
These are the freedoms the Bush administration says it wants women to have. It leaves out, though, the part about a woman's freedom to control her reproductive health.
"If we believe that human rights is the basis of all society, and that part of human rights is the right to health, is the right to work, the right to free choice, then having women choose the number and spacing of [their] children is within that context," Obaid said. "All rights are interconnected. We can't see one right in isolation of another."
This is her message. The White House rejects it.
It has instead made Obaid's agency a political target. It is withholding $34 million in congressionally authorized funds on the basis of allegations - unproved after several independent investigations - that the UN population fund participates in forced abortion and sterilization in China. The fund says it is not involved in abortion anywhere.
Secretary of State Colin Powell thought he'd put this to rest. Last year he cleared the UN agency of the accusation and even secured a $600,000 emergency allocation for the fund in October, to assist Afghan refugees. On Tuesday, when the State Department released its annual report on human rights around the globe, it said this about the fund's operations in China: In the 32 counties where the UN funds voluntary family-planning programs, local Chinese officials "have eliminated the system of overall countywide birth and population targets that tends to generate coercive enforcement."
Still, after a Senate foreign relations subcommittee hearing last week, the administration refused to free the UN money. The panel heard testimony from Josephine Guy, who said she was an investigator for something called the Population Research Institute, a small anti-abortion group based in Virginia. By way of proving the United Nations is complicit in forced abortion, Guy testified that a desk allegedly owned by UNFPA was found at a regional Chinese government family-planning office.
"We photographed the UNFPA office desk which faces - in fact touches - a desk of the Chinese Office of Family Planning," Guy said.
There you have it. The smoking desk.
This is the basis for withholding American money from an international aid organization that is, at the moment, rebuilding Afghanistan's only maternity hospitals, handing out sterile delivery kits to pregnant refugees and re-opening a vocational training center for married women. It has, by the way, on-site day care.
Congressional and other official sources said the administration plans to name its own "blue ribbon" panel to investigate the UN fund. White House officials said no final decision has been made. We may, though, be asked to believe this new committee is better able to get to the bottom of an allegation that already has been dismissed by the State Department, the General Accounting Office, and teams of international observers.
A new panel could, perhaps, start its work by opening up a safe delivery kit being distributed in Afghan refugee camps. The anti-abortion lobby claims the kits are disguises for distributing abortion devices and chemicals.
Here is what you find when you open one: A plastic sheet to lay beneath a woman in labor. A sterile string and razor blade for cutting and tying the umbilical chord. And a bar of lemon-scented soap.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.