|White House is Waging War Against Women's Health|
Women's eNews, December 11, 2002
By Françoise Girard
Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.
Many concerned citizens saw President Bush's move blocking the United States' $34 million contribution to the United Nations Population Fund last July as yet another attack on abortion. But his actions then and since have revealed a much broader anti-woman agenda, one that is threatening women's health, human rights and equality in the United States and worldwide.
White House is Waging War Against Women's Health
Congress approved the $34 million in UNFPA funding last year, with the Bush administration's full support. Yet, when the extreme conservatives who apparently have a direct line to the president raised a convoluted story about UNFPA funding coerced abortions in China, Bush backed down on his earlier commitment. This decision came even after his own investigative team came back from China with a report that verified that UNFPA was not involved in forced abortions and recommended that the money be released.
The reason Bush invoked to bar funding for UNFPA is particularly strange, because the organization has done more than any other to persuade the Chinese government to relax what is commonly known as the "one-child policy," and the resulting coercive practices. In the 32 counties where UNFPA is active in China, family-planning quotas and targets have been abandoned. UNFPA is also working to convince the Chinese government to abandon the often steep "social compensation fees" imposed on parents for each child beyond the officially prescribed number. And, as Bush's own investigative team found, UNFPA does not provide or finance abortion services in China. Nor does it in any of the 141 countries around the world where it is active.
Thus, it would be a mistake to understand the Bush attack on UNFPA as motivated only-or even principally-by a concern about abortion. As the primary U.N. agency working to ensure women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, UNFPA distributes contraceptives, supports sexuality education for young people and works to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV/AIDS. In terms of maternal care only, UNFPA estimates that, with $34 million a year, the agency can prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, nearly 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness, and more than 77,000 infant and child deaths.
Abortion Restriction Is Only First Step
Of course, abortion provided a convenient first salvo. Remember the Global Gag Rule, enacted on Bush's very first day in office? This policy requires that, in exchange for U.S. Agency for International Development money for family-planning services, foreign nongovernmental organizations must agree to withhold information from pregnant women about the option of legal abortion and where to obtain safe abortion services; sacrifice their right to engage in any public debate or public information effort regarding legal abortion, including expressing support for existing laws that allow abortion; and refrain from performing legal abortions. (Antiabortion advocacy is not silenced.) The rule stifles free speech and prevents medical professionals from providing a full range of legal, medically acceptable options to their clients. It is contrary to U.S. law and would be held unconstitutional if imposed on U.S.-based organizations.
In fact, the White House continues to blatantly pander to its anti-choice base. Among the latest initiatives is the decision to extend coverage to "unborn children" from "conception up to age 19" rather than to pregnant women under the State Child Health Insurance Plus program. For the first time, U.S. policy recognizes a zygote, embryo or a fetus as a "person" eligible for government aid-but the woman in whose body the fetus is located is not deemed worthy of guaranteed health care.
And now the administration has moved on to other aspects of sexual and reproductive health. For example, Bush has called for a $33 million increase in abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education for America's young people (these programs already receive more than $100 million in federal funding). Current federal abstinence-only-until-marriage policy prohibits programs from discussing the health benefits of condoms and other contraceptives in preventing unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS.
This approach is very damaging, since there is no evidence that abstinence-only programs delay the start of sexual activity or have any value for adolescents who are already sexually active. In contrast, there is evidence that young people who receive comprehensive sexuality education become sexually active later and are more likely to use contraceptives than those who go through abstinence-only sex education programs. In any event, the majority of U.S. parents want their children to receive information in school about a broader range of topics, including contraception, HIV/AIDS, rape and how to handle the pressure to have sex.
The White House took this crusade to the U.N. Special Session on Children in May 2002, where the administration worked hard to secure the inclusion of language promoting abstinence-only sex education. Despite threats to pull out of the negotiations, the Bush administration could not achieve its goals. Other governments in the European Union, Latin America and in South Africa and other industrialized nations recognized that, the world over, a great many adolescents are already sexually active, not least the millions who are already married or in a stable union.
Bush's Decisions Are About Women's Rights, Not Abortion
Once we realize that this Bush war is not about abortion, but about women's rights, the fact that the Bush administration systematically neglects family planning begins to make more sense. President Bush's fiscal year 2003 budget proposes no increase whatsoever in domestic family planning and reproductive health programs that are already woefully under-funded. He opposes emergency contraception, which could dramatically reduce recourse to abortion. In fact, the administration promotes action primarily after pregnancy has already occurred, namely, parental notification (even if parents are abusive), adoption, 24-hour waiting periods and the abolition of so-called partial-birth abortions.
The recent suggestion of Dr. W. David Hager to head the Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration clearly shows how the White House thinks about the rights of women.
Hager served on the Physicians' Resource Council of Focus on the Family (a conservative U.S.-based group) and recently assisted the Christian Medical Association in a "citizen's petition" calling on the FDA to reverse itself on mifepristone, also known as RU-486 or the "abortion pill." He has refused to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women and endorses the medically inaccurate assertion that emergency contraception is an abortifacient. And he recommends that women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome should seek help from reading the Bible and praying.
While Bush has said he supports equality for women frequently, his actions consistently show otherwise. He will continue to chip away at women's reproductive rights and human rights, and the new conservative-controlled Congress will likely support his efforts. Advocates must continue to press pro-choice Democrats and Republicans to fight for women's rights, starting with reinstating the UNFPA funding, so that women and girls worldwide can have access to the information and services they need to survive.
Françoise Girard is a lawyer and the senior program officer for international policy at the International Women's Health Coalition.
This article originally appeared in Women's eNews.