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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 13.4 (2003) 393-406

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U.S. Defunding of UNFPA:
A Moral Analysis

Ronald M. Green

Ethical decisions made inside the Beltway sometimes have global consequences. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the decision by Secretary of State Colin Powell on 21 July 2002 to halt $34 million in U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Behind this decision lay the forces of America's abortion politics as well as tangled issues in law and bioethics.

I became involved in this debate when, in early September 2003, I served as a member of a nine-person delegation of U.S. religious leaders and ethicists that traveled to China to meet with those associated with the UNFPA program there. The delegation was assembled by Frances Kissling, of Catholics for a Free Choice, which also provided support and funding for the necessary travel and administrative services. In China, our contacts included UNFPA administrators, Chinese government officials, and ordinary villagers touched by UNFPA efforts. In the middle of its week-long stay, the delegation left Beijing in three separate groups to travel to remote provincial regions (Hubei, Gansu, and Ningxia). Our goal was to respond to the Bush administration's defunding decision by deepening our understanding of the current Chinese population program and UNFPA's relationship to it. In the course of this enquiry, I encountered challenging questions that drew on my own training in ethics in novel ways.

Historical Background

UNFPA is the world's largest organization providing family planning and reproductive health services. It was established in 1969 as the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. In 1987, the Economic and Social Council decided to rename it the United Nations Population Fund, but to retain the original abbreviation-acronym. UNFPA works to improve access to and the quality of family planning services in more than 140 of the poorest countries in the world. It is also very active in providing services aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. It does not provide abortion services, but works to prevent abortion through family planning and to help countries provide services for women suffering from the complications of unsafe abortion. [End Page 393]

Although UNFPA is officially an agency of the United Nations, its budget, currently about $200 million per year, comes from voluntary payments by donors, including UN member states. U.S. funding has been irregular. In 1985, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a foreign operations appropriations measure that has come to be known as the "Kemp-Kasten Amendment." This measure, which has been repassed in substantially unchanged form every year since, forbids funding for "any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."1 From 1986 on, the Reagan and Bush administrations halted all U.S. funding for UNFPA activities around the world on the grounds that the agency's activities in China caused it to be involved in supporting or participating in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization, and, hence, put it in violation of Kemp-Kasten.

Efforts by the People's Republic of China to slow the increase of its population date from the early 1970s when, in a striking departure from classical Marxist theory, which had insisted on the positive value of added labor power and denied the need for demographic controls, the government imposed a policy of delayed marriage and birth spacing. In 1979, these efforts intensified with the advent of the "one child policy." (In fact, this name is misleading since the number of children allowed a couple varies significantly from urban to rural areas, with rural residents and members of ethnic minorities permitted to have larger families.) To implement this program, the government established a National Family Planning Commission (now National Population and Family Planning Commission) which, among other things, set up a network of family planning service centers around the country, where birth control...


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