FOR the fifth year in a row the United States, for abortion-related reasons, is withholding funds from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Yet the fund, a family-planning organization which the US helped launch 20 years ago and once strongly supported, had made a specific concerted effort this year to meet US objections.
Also, for the first time since 1985 Congress approved such funding, after putting special limits on it. The Nov. 7 elections, in which anti-abortion candidates took a beating, are believed to have also played a role in the Legislature's reversal.
Even so, the Bush administration viewed the denial of such funding as an important enough issue to merit a veto of the entire US foreign aid bill. Most aid, except that to the UNFPA, has since been restored.
President Bush, though a strong proponent of the UNFPA's work while a US representative at the UN in the early 1970s, objects to what he sees as the UN program's link with abortion. The so-called Kemp Amendment of 1985 specifically bars the US from funding any organization that ``supports or participates in the management of a program of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.''
The UNFPA aids some 140 countries. One of them is the People's Republic of China, where population planning programs are coercive and have led to abortions and sterilization.
In any case the UN program in China, which relies on the UNFPA for only about 1 percent of the funds it puts into family planning, supports only contraceptive research and maternal and child health.
``We've never budged from our original position which is that our money doesn't go for abortions,'' says UNFPA spokesman Alex Marshall. ``Abortion is not recognized as a means of family planning. We're not allowed to support abortion programs.''
Indeed, proponents of US funding for the UN agency say its work reduces the number of abortions by preventing more pregnancies. Under new congressional strings, added this year, the US money was to be kept in a separate account. None of it would have gone to China. The Bush administration, under strong pressure from the anti-abortion lobby, termed the move a ``bookkeeping'' distinction.
Organizations such as the Washington-based Population Crisis Committee are disappointed by the veto but heartened by the change in congressional sentiment.
``I'd say we have won a great moral victory,'' says committee vice president Sharon Camp, speaking for those who support US funding of UNFPA. ``We certainly have the votes now in Congress. This just suggests to me that George Bush is under the thumb of the anti-abortion lobby and doesn't have the nerve to move out from under it.''
The loss of the $15 million from the US will not particularly hamper the UNFPA in its work. Mr. Marshall notes that donors now number more than 100 and include the Soviet Union. Japan is the largest UNFPA donor. Contributions are up and may total more than $200 million next year.
Marshall says there have been significant changes in the two decades since the fund was set up to help developing nations. A lack of general interest in the subject in Africa, for instance, once kept the UNFPA focused on data collection and analysis there. Marshall says, however, that recognition of the need for family planning in Africa has grown enormously in the last 10 years.
The bulk of population program funding now comes from developing nations themselves. Many now view the issue as a central part of their development policy. Marshall notes that a recent 80-nation UNFPA conference in Amsterdam set an annual goal of $9 billion, close to triple the current amount, for international spending from all sources on family planning. He says that less than half the women of child-bearing age in developing nations now have access to family planning services.
``But we'd be able to do so much more if the US were part of it,'' observes Marshall.
The US, which has also withheld direct funding from the International Planned Parenthood Federation for the last five years, is clearly not opposed to improved family planning efforts. The more than $200 million Washington gives out annually makes it the largest single donor in the field.
``That's the irony,'' says Dr. Camp. ``The US is a significant player, but it's our loss that we're not represented at the table in multilateral efforts - it sends a strong signal to other nations.''