Claims Against UNFPA "Unfounded," Religious Leaders Conclude

Thursday, November 20, 2003

By Patricia Kowsmann
U.N. Wire

WASHINGTON — Nine religious leaders who went to China in September on a seven-day mission to investigate accusations that the U.N. Population Fund cooperates with the government by allowing coercive abortions and sterilization released a report yesterday saying they have found no evidence of such allegations.

The nine-member delegation, composed of Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant leaders, visited Beijing and three provinces, meeting with health officials, Chinese families, UNFPA staff members, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations.

In the report, The United Nations Population Fund in China: A Catalyst for Change, the delegation says the agency promotes voluntary, high-quality reproductive health care in China, and is a major force in helping the country end coercive family planning programs.

"The UNFPA in no way supports or participates in coercive practices in China," said Ronald Green, a member of the delegation and chairman of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College, in a phone conference. "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."

A copy of the report has been sent to U.S. President George W. Bush, the delegation said, in an effort to convince the U.S. administration to restore funding for UNFPA, cut last year after right-wing Christian groups accused the agency of supporting abortions in China.

According to the religious leaders who went on the mission, the report's release comes at a crucial moment, since the U.S. House of Representatives is due to approve the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill this week, which includes an amendment to restore up to $35 million in funding for the UNFPA.

Ultimately, however, Bush can veto the amendment even if it passes the House and Senate.

"Will president Bush turn a deaf ear to the voices of leaders of religious and faith-based organizations who are not right wing?" asked Frances Kissling, a delegation member and President of Catholics for a Free Choice. "Or will he be fair and take our first-hand experiences in China into consideration?"

Kissing said the delegation was "positively impressed by the quality of care in Chinese clinics and by the UNFPA staff regarding family planning." 

The last time an amendment to restore UNFPA funding was presented to the House was in July, when it blocked $50 million in funding for the agency for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

In a letter attached to the report sent to Bush, the delegation wrote, "We urge you to read and review our report in which you will find evidence that UNFPA is not involved in coercion.  We believe that the work of UNFPA is critical and found that it is highly consistent with our core religious and ethical values."

The report also noted that like the UNFPA, the Chinese government has been taking active steps to end the use of coercion in its family-planning programs and that abortion and sterilization rates are declining in the country as contraceptive choices increase.

"More than 160 monitoring missions have found no incidents of involuntary abortion in any UNFPA-assisted counties since the agency began its work," the report says.  "At 30 per 100 live births, the Ministry of Health's national abortion rate figures now approach the U.S. rate."

"In UNFPA-supported counties, the rate at which women under 35 choose voluntary sterilization as their preferred contraceptive method has decreased from 36 to 26 percent.  The overall rate for women and men in China has fallen from 45 percent to 30 percent in those counties. This compares with a U.S. rate of 30 percent," the report adds.

The report also cites various Chinese health authorities and citizens as stressing the importance of the agency in helping the population.

"If UNFPA [was] not here, progress would be slower and more painful," said a Chinese director of a family-planning commission cited by the report. "UNFPA makes it possible to do it faster, less painfully, cheaper and better ... it's a window on the world and a catalyst for transformation."

The delegation will present the report to the UNFPA on Monday in New York.