With domestic and global attention turned to the financial crisis and the last four weeks of the race for the White House, the Bush administration is taking the opportunity to quietly check off some nefarious boxes in its efforts to spread the American culture wars beyond our shores.
Last week, the UK-based Marie Stopes International, which fairly calls itself "one of the world's leading family planning institutions", received a letter leaders of the organisation had been both dreading and expecting since June. Penned by Kent Hill, assistant administrator at USAID's bureau for global health, it dropped an anvil.
"In light of the restrictions on USAID assistance and MSI's work as the major implementing partner of [the UN Population Fund]'s programme in China, which supports China's family planning programme, USAID has concluded that it is not appropriate for MSI to receive USAID funded contraceptives and/or condoms from host country governments," Hill wrote, even though MSI doesn't itself receive any USAID funding itself.
The reason? The Kemp-Kasten Amendment, a lesser-known restriction on global population control organisations that purports to thwart groups that engage in coercive abortion or forced sterilisation. Sounds like a no-brainer - after all, who supports coercive abortion? But the application of Kemp-Kasten, which was enacted in 1985, has been wielded by Republican administrations since Ronald Reagan as a legislative sledgehammer that fits hand-in-glove with the so-called global gag rule that restricts any family planning organisation that even mentions abortion. Since 2002, the Bush administration has cited Kemp-Kasten in its annual decision to withhold our $39.7m in yearly dues from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
The impact? In his letter USAID's Hill went on to say that countries working with MSI had been instructed, effective immediately, to no longer work with MSI. At least six African countries will lose MSI's distribution of crucial USAID-supplied contraceptives and condoms in rural and remote areas and urban slums. The nations affected include Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, countries for whom MSI currently covers some 25% of contraceptive distribution.
For the Bush administration, which touts its HIV/Aids strategy in Africa as one of its major success stories, cracking down on condom distribution in Africa seems a far cry from implementing comprehensive disease-control efforts. Not to mention the fact that American politicians in general - even Sarah Palin - claim that reducing the number of abortions is a worthy and admirable goal. And yet by undermining the effort to distribute the means to prevent pregnancy and disease, USAID has slashed both such efforts.
In a statement, MSI outlined the potential consequences of such a move:
MSI's family planning services prevented 5-7 million unwanted pregnancies in 2007 alone, thus preventing 1-1.5 million abortions. Most of these abortions would have been unsafe, putting women's lives at risk. "For every two intra-uterine devices (IUDs) the US government denies MSI, an unsafe abortion could result unless MSI is able to find alternative supplies," MSI president Dana Hovig explained.
It's no secret that China's family planning programme is deemed coercive. Fears of forced sterilisations have existed for years. But MSI and UNFPA have long argued that their work in no way supports forced sterilisation or coerced abortions - a point verified by independent observers. Instead they give women safe means for controlling their own bodies.
Craig Larsen, a senior policy analyst at Population Action International, explained to me that organisations like Marie Stopes had feared a crackdown as far back as June. A few sentences issued by USAID indicated the organisation was beginning to look into expanding the reach of the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, though no one knew exactly where USAID was taking that veiled threat.
The hypocrisy of the Bush administration knows no bounds. This is a policy that will not have an impact on China at all. Indeed, for impact on China, perhaps President Bush might have considered not attending the Beijing Olympics and lustily partaking in the celebration of Chinese culture. In a letter to Condoleezza Rice protesting the recent restraints placed on MSI, Nita Lowey, a New York congresswoman, pointed out that the US government itself, in a 2001 assessment of the UNFPA, also rejected the case for UN programmes supporting any kind of unsavoury Chinese policies.
As I wrote back in July, the World Bank estimates that 51 million unintended pregnancies take place globally every year, 68,000 women die from botched or unsafe abortions each year and 5.1 million are left permanently disabled by them. The World Bank drew a direct link between giving women access to contraception and family planning and boosting economic growth and ending endemic poverty and maternal and infant death.
But the Bush administration is more interested in expanding our ugly culture wars than helping women internationally. With this move, USAID has put in place a stumbling block even for an incoming Obama administration. Whereas the global gag rule has become a must-undo for Democrats upon entering office (Bill Clinton repealed the original gag rule the moment he walked into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1993, and Obama would likely do the same) and likewise reinstated by Republicans (Bush II immediately signed the gag rule back into effect in 2001), Kemp-Kasten must be reviewed by state department lawyers and legislators to be reassessed.
All of which means that, though Obama would surely put in motion the wheels to roll back such obvious political measures, it will take months, not days, even with a Democratic administration, to reinstate Marie Stopes's efforts to distribute IUDs and condoms in Africa. That means months of no distribution, months of women used as pawns in a Republican game that ruins or ends lives halfway around the world as a means of placating their supporters here at home.