Sorry, Ladies, But You Have No Choice

Ladies, You Have No Choice

How extremists took over U.S. family planning policy


Every Friday morning, Stirling Scruggs receives a fax that the sender, an organization called C-FAM, may or may not have intended for him to receive. C-FAM is the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, based in New York near the United Nations, a behind-the-scenes anti-abortion group that has established itself as one of the most vociferous factions in the U.S. culture wars. Scruggs, who grew up in Tennessee and looks more like a country-western singer than a man who oversees an entire UN division, doesn't at all like what he sees. It's his job, as director of the Information and External Relations Division of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), to watch out for disinformation being disseminated through the United States and abroad by a network of shadowy anti-choice organizations of which C-FAM is one. What he sees coming in today is a doozie.

The newly arrived fax alleges that the UN Population Fund was complicit in the forced sterilizations of poor, indigenous women in Peru during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori. The allegation comes from another group in the network, called the Population Research Institute (PRI), which is based in the horse-country town of Front Royal, Virginia. This assertion, says Scruggs, is "total fiction." C-FAM, he says, is passing along PRI's charges as part of an orchestrated campaign to discredit the UN in general and UNFPA in particular. He points out that PRI has included no substantiation for these charges. Wasting no time, he gets on the phone to his UNFPA colleagues in Lima, alerting them to the inevitable ruckus this story will cause, and requesting that they coordinate any response with his office.

C-FAM's use of fax rather than e-mail may seem quaint, but the group's influence is both calculated and potent. The "Friday Fax of Misinformation," as Scruggs ruefully calls it, is circulated to a network of other, like-minded, groups that will in turn do their best to provoke the rage of fellow anti-abortionists all over the world. It also goes to certain members of the U.S. Congress and selected members of the media who can be counted on to promote the group's anti-choice agenda.

That agenda, says the UN's Scruggs, is not simply to oppose abortion. Rather, the anti-abortion rhetoric is a kind of code for something more pervasive. "These groups are not just anti-abortion, they are anti-women, and oppose population policies and programs in general," says Scruggs. "They hate us because we have been very effective in promoting women's rights and providing poor communities with the information and means to voluntarily plan their families. The pity is that refuting these lies takes up valuable staff time-time we could be using to carry out our primary mandate, saving the lives of poor women, men, and adolescents."

Behind their innocuous-sounding names and claims to represent "pro-life" interests, C-FAM and its network of like-minded groups-others include the Pro-Life Action League, American Life League, Campaign Life Coalition, Concerned Women for America, and National Right to Life Committee-have lobbied heavily against women's rights to make their own decisions about having or not having children. C-FAM was established ostensibly to monitor UN activities in the population and reproductive health fields. But according to investigations carried out by other groups, including Catholics for a Free Choice, what C-FAM really does is orchestrate misinformation campaigns against the UN system, disrupt meetings, and brand all specialized agencies and NGOs engaged in reproductive health and family planning initiatives in developing countries as "anti-family."

C-FAM's president, Austin Ruse, is one of a growing number of figures who are apparently bent on undermining all aid to developing countries by organizations that even mention the words "family planning," "reproductive health," "women's rights," or "free, informed choice." He has reportedly told supporters that reproductive health is just a "cover-up for abortionists" and that efforts to achieve reproductive health and establish rights for poor women is a "feminist conspiracy" to "destroy the family."

 A particular target, for Ruse, is the Beijing Platform of Action, a product of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995. In the typically bland but well-meaning language of UN delegates everywhere, the Platform calls for actions "to eradicate persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women; to remove the obstacles to women's full participation in public life and decision-making; to eliminate all forms of violence against women; to ensure equal access for girl children and women to education and health services; to promote economic autonomy for women; and to encourage an equitable sharing of family responsibilities." To Ruse, this is "one of the most radical and dangerous documents you can imagine" (italics added).

It's not clear whether Ruse is one of those Montana-style militants who believe the UN storm troopers will arrive by night in black helicopters (New York is not Montana, after all), but he's by no means alone. Nor is his characterization of the Beijing Platform as "dangerous" a thing that people like Scruggs can just shrug off. C-FAM and the Population Research Institute are part of a tightly woven group of organizations bent on "dismantling 30 years of progress in population assistance," says a USAID (Agency for International Development) official who prefers anonymity. Both organizations were founded and financed by the same parent organization-Human Life International (HLI), an offspring of Human Life International Canada. The offices of Human Life International are next to PRI's in Front Royal.

The pit-bull of this labyrinthine assemblage is the Population Research Institute, which was set up in 1989 by Benedictine priest Father Paul Marx, who at the time was president of Human Life International. Sometime in the mid-1990s, Marx recruited a man named Steven Mosher to run PRI. Marx is perhaps best known for his assertion that the success of the abortion rights movement in the United States and elsewhere is the work of Jews. In a 1993 newsletter to supporters, Marx wrote: "Today, certain members of this people whose ancient religion and culture managed to survive Auschwitz and Buchenwald are presiding over the greatest Holocaust in the history of the world. American Jews have been leaders in establishing and defending the efficient destruction of more than 30 million preborn [sic] children in this country."

Mosher, the man Marx would later recruit to run PRI, started out his adult life as an apparently serious student, entering a doctoral program in anthropology at Stanford University. He was expelled from the program, however, for having engaged in what the university termed "illegal and seriously unethical conduct" that "endangered his research subjects." Though it is unclear what Mosher was initially researching in China, he began to study the country's population-control practices, which in the 1970s and 1980s were very harsh. His observations there may have colored his subsequent views, as he witnessed women being forced to have late-term abortions against their will. Mosher published photos of some of these women in a magazine in Taiwan, but neglected to conceal their faces-thereby exposing the practice but also exposing the women (who could have been seen as cooperating with Mosher) to retaliation by the Chinese authorities.

Mosher then morphed into his current persona: stridently anti-abortion and anti-China. He also evidently believes-along with some of those Montana militiamen-that the UN is a global conspiracy to impose a "new world order" on the community of nations. Part of that new world order, he says, is a plan to use family planning as a way to "selectively reduce the population of the world to a manageable number."

Putting Family Planners in the Crosshairs

During the 1990s, the views of Mosher, Ruse, and their network made steady but quiet inroads into the thinking of the increasingly conservative U.S. Congress. As long as Bill Clinton was in the White House, these views were ignored by the administration. With the arrival of George W. Bush, however, the balance shifted suddenly. "These groups have been around for the past decade," points out Richard Snyder, chief of UNFPA's External Relations Branch. "The difference is that now they have an ear in the White House." The moment the Supreme Court decided Bush was president, the anti-choice campaigns moved into high gear. And on his first day in office, Bush gave them their first reward-reactivating a discredited Reagan-era policy called the "global gag rule," according to which no organization can receive U.S. family planning assistance if it performs abortions, provides counseling and referral for abortions, or lobbies to make abortion legal or more available in its own country.

The next target to be put in the White House crosshairs was UNFPA. The Congress allocated $34 million to the Population Fund in 2002. But then Mosher's PRI issued a report alleging that UNFPA aid funds were being used for coercive abortions and sterilizations in China. Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who made his reputation as a UN basher, became very excited about the report-even though it actually contained no hard evidence and seemed to be little more than a bad memory of what Mosher had reported 20 years earlier. Smith dispatched a letter to Bush urging that the funding be withheld. Bush, not known for his willingness to be dissuaded from an action by any lack of hard evidence, decided to withhold the funds. His reason, he said, was the Kemp-Kasten Amendment to the 1985 foreign aid bill [officially the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act], which stipulates that no funds can be allocated to any organization or program "which supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or sterilization."

The action was denounced by scores of U.S. legislators. One of them was Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic representative from New York City. "What I find so outrageous is that Bush withheld this $34 million based solely on testimony from the Population Research Institute, an arm of a far-right group," she said. "PRI is the only organization that has ever made these allegations. The administration is going against the will of Congress and the international community by allowing a small band of extremists to hamstring its foreign policy."

The "small band of extremists" is doing more than hamstringing U.S. foreign policy. PRI and its spawn are attempting to remake policy to fit their own triumphal new world order-in hopes of reversing decades of progress by UN agencies, NGOs, and community groups. Operating mainly behind the scenes, they have helped to persuade the Bush administration to systematically de-fund the main international organizations that work in the field of reproductive health and family planning.

The campaign began even before Bush moved in. Bill Clinton had pledged to raise U.S. contributions to $1 billion a year for UN agencies and NGOs that provide critically needed reproductive health and family planning services, but was unable to get a Republican-controlled Congress to authorize the funding. In 2002, the Global Health Council reported that between 1995 and 2002 the shortfall in funding had resulted in an estimated 300 million unintended pregnancies and the deaths of close to 1 million women from botched abortions and pregnancy-related illnesses and complications. The World Health Organization confirmed that over half a million women die every year from pregnancy-related causes, and that 90 percent of those deaths could be prevented if the women had access to trained health care providers or emergency obstetric services.

From the day Bush first sat down in the Oval Office, his decisions in the areas of family planning and population appear to have been guided solely by ideology, with little interest in what is actually happening in developing countries. After the delivery of the PRI report on China, for example, several high-level independent delegations were sent to China to look into the charges PRI had made, and their findings were sent to Bush-but were ignored.

Niek Biegman, former Dutch ambassador to NATO with a long history of UN service, headed the first delegation, under UN auspices. Upon his return, Biegman wrote that "UNFPA is very much in the business of helping the Chinese government fulfill its obligation under the Cairo Programme of Action, which is entirely based on a voluntary approach to family planning" (italics added). In the 32 pilot counties where UNFPA is working with the National Population and Family Planning Commission to eliminate targets and quotas and introduce improvements in service delivery, including access to a wide range of contraceptives, Biegman observed that the Fund was "enabling Chinese family planning programs to deliver better quality services, based on choice and informed consent." China has changed greatly since the 1980s, but in Steven Mosher's mind-and now in Bush's-the nightmare goes on.

Biegman's investigation was not the only one to find a gaping disparity between the White House view and reality. Three other major independent missions have confirmed Biegman's findings. In April 2002, a three-member group of British parliamentarians-one of them a conservative Catholic-visited China and found no evidence of misconduct by UNFPA. The next month, a three-person team was sent by the U.S. State Department. Embarrassingly for Bush, the U.S. team found "no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the PRC. Indeed, UNFPA has registered its strong opposition to such practices." All told, in the past decade there have been more than 160 UN monitoring missions to China. None of them confirmed the PRI report that had so excited Congressman Smith and so galvanized George Bush.

Another independent mission, organized by Catholics for a Free Choice, sent a nine-member team of faith-based organization leaders and ethicists to China in September 2003. Their conclusions were unequivocal: "On the basis of our meetings with Chinese family planning officials and ordinary citizens, we can say with confidence that all of the programs with which UNFPA is currently working are committed to avoiding any practice of forced abortions or involuntary sterilizations."

Why is the Bush administration so unresponsive to such findings? One answer is offered by Ronald Green, chairman of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and a member of the 2003 delegation. "The Bush Administration has made UNFPA a sacrificial lamb for the religious right in America," says Green. "It's crass election politics. These groups not only oppose abortion, they are against family planning and reproductive health in general. Their positions...have no basis in reality."

The Death Toll Your News Channel Doesn't Discuss

Considering the amount of damage that has resulted from the see-no-research Bush policies-in every area from maternal mortality to girls' education to healthy parenting-many Washington-watchers have wondered just why these policies have been applied with such a vengeance. For Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, the reason is clear: "Women in other countries can't vote in U.S. elections," he writes, "but the members of the National Right to Life Committee not only vote but also donate to candidates and political action committees.... More than any other in recent memory, this administration is marked by a foreign policy driven primarily by a domestic agenda." Brian Dixon, director of government relations for the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Population Connection, agrees. "Since the first day of this Bush administration, there has been one guiding principle in its foreign policy decisions: appeasing the right-wing, anti-choice base. The result is to undermine the health of women all around the world."

A related explanation for why this anti-female action has come on so harshly and so hard is that in opening the White House door to religious guidance (Bush's advisor Karl Rove has set up a "Faith-Based and Communities Initiative Office" in the White House), the administration has opened a flood gate. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, believes that by letting religious zealots in the policy door, Bush is fracturing the Constitution. Sachs wrote recently in New Scientist: "It is more than 200 years since the church and state were officially separated in the U.S., but anyone with an eye on American foreign policy under the Bush administration knows that this basic tenet of the Constitution is under threat." The religious right, he continues, "has found the ear of the White House to an unprecedented degree. This is especially true when it comes to U.S. policies on international development, which are riddled with evangelical opposition to family planning and the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS."

Despite the fact that every scientific study ever to address the issue has rated condoms as one of the most effective means of halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the Bush regime has entered into an implicit alliance with the Vatican to preach abstinence-only programs. One immediate consequence has been a significant drop in the number of condoms shipped to poor developing countries by USAID, which, under Clinton, was one of the two largest donors of condoms in the world (the other was UNFPA). According to Population Action International, an NGO based in Washington, D.C., Bush's partisan policies have ended life-saving shipments of condoms and other contraceptive supplies to 16 of the poorest developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Family planning agencies in another 13 countries, nearly all in sub-Saharan Africa, no longer get condoms and contraceptives from USAID because they will not agree to the conditions set forth in the global gag rule. With funds in short supply, donor governments now provide only one-eighth of the number of condoms needed to effectively combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"These ill-conceived and dangerous policies are costing human lives, not saving them," comments Steven Sinding, the director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), headquartered in London. IPPF, the largest voluntary organization in the world that provides reproductive health and family planning services to women, men and adolescents, is active in 182 countries. As a result of the Global Gag Rule, the Federation is losing at least $18 million a year in U.S. funding; $75 million over the next four to eight years.

IPPF predicts that the number of women who die from unsafe abortions every year-estimated minimally at 70,000 by the World Health Organization-will soar due to Bush's policies. Making abortion illegal, or difficult to obtain, does not stop abortion from happening. In the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation where abortions are completely illegal, IPPF estimates there are half a million a year. Many of them take place in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. At just one hospital in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia - another country where abortion is illegal-a study found that half of all female deaths were from botched back-street abortions.

Perhaps the ultimate tragedy in this saga is the loss in reproductive health and family planning services to poor women-ironically, the very services that can prevent abortions from taking place. IPPF points to just a few of the programs it had to cut: In Bangladesh 14 clinics in poor neighborhoods had to be closed; in Nepal, over $700,000 has been lost for family planning, safe motherhood, and contraceptive services; in Cambodia over $3 million has been lost for HIV/AIDS prevention and counseling; in Kenya three clinics servicing 56,000 clients, mostly poor women of reproductive age, had to close; and in eastern Nepal, the local branch of IPPF had to close clinics and cut back services for over 300,000 people, endangering their health and welfare.

Other international NGOs with decades of experience providing quality health services in the poorest regions of developing countries have also seen their funding shrink as a result of the global gag rule. Marie Stopes International, for instance, had to close a major clinic servicing 300,000 people in Kenya's poverty-stricken Mathare Valley. The clinic provided STI screening and treatment, HIV testing and counseling, and a complete array of basic family planning and reproductive health care services. Apparently, it matters not to anti-choice opponents that no abortions were ever performed at that facility, or that there are no other health clinics in the entire area. Meanwhile, HIV infection rates in this region, as in the rest of Africa, are on the rise.

 On a much larger scale, UNFPA calculates that the loss of $34 million, about 13 percent of its total budget, is having a devastating effect on programs in some of the poorest countries in which the Fund works. In Bangladesh, where close to 70 percent of pregnant women receive no medical care before, during, or after childbirth, programs to train doctors to deal with obstetric emergencies had to be cancelled. In Kenya, where the Fund was working with the Catholic Church to prevent teenagers from contracting the HIV virus, the project had to be shelved when funds dried up. Overall, UNFPA estimates that the loss of U.S. funding will result in 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 abortions, and more than 81,000 deaths.

Stirling Scruggs reckons that UNFPA has lost between $500 and $600 million since the fundamental change in U.S. population policy in 1986, funds that could have been used to advance women's health and rights worldwide. "It is sad when one considers that the U.S. was the prime mover in creating UNFPA during the Nixon administration," reflects Scruggs. "UNFPA has become just what the U.S. envisioned, the world's premiere reproductive health and rights organization." But now, that reputation is in jeopardy-not because of misdeeds, but because of misinformation. If the tactics practiced by C-FAM and PRI are any indication of what is to come, "then we are in for a lot more than false accusations, lost funds, and inflammatory rhetoric," says UNFPA's Snyder.

Indeed, PRI and other fundamentalist groups are now going directly into developing countries to spread their misinformation, employing techniques used by the CIA to discredit governments. Three years ago, PRI sent Austin Ruse to Pristina in Kosovo with the message that UNFPA was in league with the Serbs, and that the Fund's family planning services were actually a form of "ethnic cleansing." Fortunately, a quick reaction from UNFPA and supporting organizations avoided a potential lethal situation. "We were in a post-conflict situation, operating in very difficult conditions," recalls Scruggs. "If that rumor had persisted it could have put our people in the line of fire."

UNFPA, IPPF, and other international organizations working in the field of population are girding themselves for worse times ahead. To IPPF's Steve Sinding, UNFPA's Scruggs, and others who have toiled on the front lines of development, these cutbacks in funding from the world's richest country are not just numbers, but human faces-like that of the 25-year-old woman in the Philippines who died from hemorrhage on her way to a hospital 20 kilometers away because the local clinic didn't have the training or equipment to stop her from bleeding to death after giving birth to her sixth child in seven years; or the 20-year-old college student in Botswana who died from AIDS for lack of a condom; or the adolescent girl from Ethiopia who, forced to give birth at the tender age of 13, ended up suffering from fistula-a condition in which a woman's rectum, urethra, and vagina are torn apart during childbirth, leaving her incontinent and causing bodily wastes to seep through her vaginal canal and down her legs. According to the UN, nearly half of all women in developing countries deliver their babies without the aid of a trained medical attendant or access to emergency obstetric care. "We are dealing with real people and their unmet needs, not statistics," says Sinding. "These acts are a testament to the Bush administration's war against women and his overall contempt for their fundamental civil and human rights."


Don Hinrichsen is a contributing editor to People & the Planet, a London-based web magazine.


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