SHANGHAI, China -- It was hardly surprising when the Bush administration sent a letter to Congress last week saying it would still not fund the United Nations Population Fund because of alleged abortion and coercive family planning measures used in this crowded country of 1.3 billion people.
It was, after all, the third time in three years that the money earmarked by the U.S. Congress for the Population Fund, including this year's $34 million, had been held back. No one expected anything different from this administration, influenced as it is by conservative critics of population control.
But there is something new about this symbolic move, which punishes family planning programs across the globe. There is virtually no proof anymore that coerced abortion (prevalent in earlier days), forced sterilization, or even the state's use of "birth permits" to enforce its "one-child" policy are still public policy here.
The Bush administration statement issued on July 16 insists: "We are prepared to consider funding the United Nations Population Fund in the future if its program in China is restructured in a way consistent with U.S. law, or if China ends its program of coerced abortion." Oddly, it is holding back urgently needed funding from 32 effective exhibition projects across China, which are leaders in the needed restructuring.
As the president of the Washington-based Population Institute, Werner Fornos (last year's Laureate of the U.N. Population Award), commented this week on a trip through China: "President Bush's denial of the $34 million that Congress appropriated this year for the U.N. Population Fund is a cruel travesty -- an act that bypasses rationality and fairness to placate religious ideologue constituents who oppose both family planning and women's rights. Several inquiries into allegations of the fund's support of coerced abortions and involuntary sterilizations to carry out China's one-child family policy ... have revealed the charges to be unwarranted."
I have just completed a 10-day trip through China with the institute, as an observer of its Chinese-sponsored mission. Here are some snapshots of the family planning mentality that has developed over the last three years:
-- In Shaanxi province just outside of historic Xian, one family planning commissioner told the group: "Abortion has gone way down because now we deliver technical services much better than before -- we give the contraception pill free, as well as IUDs, and people have changed their behavior. I don't even know the details, abortion happens so rarely in these years.
"Before, we were dealing with management control of the population -- today we are client-oriented. Because of our economic development, we can do so much more."
-- Outside of Chengdu, deep inside Central China, we were told that family workers at the village level are elected by the farmers themselves, as part of the village elections begun three years ago. Officials reported that the much-criticized (and rightly so) "sex selection," by which couples abort female babies in order to have one male heir, is illegal and now socially unacceptable.
-- In Lipu County in Guangxi Province near beautiful Guilin in the South, officials stressed that even sterilization, which was highly prevalent when this was a less developed country, has dropped from 549 in 1999 to 16 in 2003 -- almost entirely because of the reasonable and effective family planning policies and techniques that the Population Fund has propagated, and which the rapidly modernizing Chinese government has arrived at.
But one need not believe only Chinese officials on this subject. Every foreign mission that has investigated the claims of government-sponsored coerced abortion, to name only one of the claims of the critics, has come away refuting them. This includes groups from Catholics for a Free Choice; another group of Catholics, Protestants and Jews sent by the Bush administration to investigate claims; and a study group from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, whose report noted that the Chinese abortion rate (and remember, abortion is legal here) went from 43 per thousand in 1990 to 18 per thousand in 2001, as the state sees the citizen today more as client than subject.
In fact, all the data -- including the observations of the Western embassies in Beijing -- show that the work of the U.N. complements voluntarism.
The critics of such desirable development, who are backing the administration's obdurateness in looking at how a country really changes -- be they conservative Catholics or fundamentalists, should take a serious look at this country. Instead of encouraging healthy change, they are discouraging it.
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