Abortion and UN Dues

Single-issue politics has gone global, and no one seems to care

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms recently beckoned some puzzled foreign diplomats to come chat about the $800 million United States debt to the United Nations. Their wary visit to Capitol Hill is one sign of the times, in a Congress that can no longer legislate.

In particular, single-issue politics has gone global, and UN funding has become enmeshed in the difficult US abortion debate.

The Clinton administration and the Republican Congress had a deal on UN arrears last fall, until the moment an anti-abortion rider was offered by Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey. Senator Helms reportedly fought against the rider, but was outgunned in conference by the increasingly powerful Conservative Action Team of the House.

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Since then, there has been silence between the White House and the Hill on a solution.

The UN funding bill offered by Senator Helms and Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware is a surprising arena for an abortion showdown, because the House rider has little application to UN affairs. It restricts family planning funds, but most US dues to the UN go for other purposes.

And the Smith rider is less potent than some pro-choice constituents may fear. Under the statute's language, the US is to withhold family planning funds - but no others - from the UN unless the UN certifies that it will not "violate the laws" or "engage in any activity or effort to alter the laws or governmental policies" of any foreign country on abortion.

The UN has never claimed the right to violate local law, and doesn't lobby local governments.

Pro-choice and population groups are alarmed by wider-ranging language buried in the Helms-Biden conference report. Not only overt lobbying in favor of abortion is forbidden, according to the report. The UN must also refrain from "sponsoring" any "conferences and workshops on" - or drafting "materials or public statements calling attention" to - "alleged defects" of foreign abortion laws. Population groups say this could prevent even the publication of statistics describing maternal mortality.

A dose of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's jurisprudence may be in order. The conservative judge believes that the plain language of a statute cannot be stretched by fine print in the legislative history, because many members never read the stuff.

A joint resolution of the House and Senate could also rein in the conference report, and even amend the Smith rider itself, without revisiting the bill in its entirety.

No one doubts the sincerity of Representative Smith's pro-life views. And no one doubts the depth of conviction of US family-planning groups chiding the White House to veto the Helms-Biden bill, even at the cost of $819 million in UN funding.

But the clock is running. According to a new General Accounting Office study, under the UN charter, the US will automatically lose its General Assembly vote at the end of 1998 as a debtor owing two years worth of red ink, unless we can find more than $200 million in new funds to pay down back dues. This requires current appropriations. It's too large an amount for the gambit of "reprogramming" State Department funds.

Delaying arrears payments will also ruin the chance of cutting the mandated US share of UN expenses, a change the administration and Senator Helms hoped to bring home this year. The US will remain Peck's Bad Boy of Turtle Bay, less able to influence UN decisions.

There has been no recent conversation between the White House and Congress on solutions to the impasse. The Helms-Biden package was approved in April, but the Republican leadership still hasn't sent the bill to the president, and has no plans to do so until September or October.

Officials in the State Department and the National Security Council say that the funding dispute has passed well beyond their hands, and is the province of political people in the White House.

The House International Relations Committee, chaired by Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, claims to have substitute language to swing four key votes away from the Smith rider that would also be acceptable to US AID, a bilateral agency more directly affected by restrictions on family planning funds.

Why is no one talking? The UN helps women of the developing world in myriad ways through economic development, education, microcredit, refugee work, and child health, as well as in security functions such as peacekeeping and disarmament.

Even from the strongest pro-choice position, it is debatable whether withholding $819 million from the UN - whose regular budget is only $1.25 billion per year - is worth the candle. And even Representative Smith should recognize that the UN does a great deal for children that is worth preserving.

Perhaps Richard Holbrooke, the new US ambassador to the UN, can get the sides talking.

* Ruth Wedgwood is a senior fellow for international organizations and law at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

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