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"Culture of Life":
The Deadly AmBush on Third World Women

The most apt, and appalling, example of the unholy alliance of the Catholic Church and fundamentalists Christians is in the anti-abortion policies of the current US administration of George W. Bush. Both groups of Christians were major factors in helping George W. win his reelection campaign of 2004. [1]

Ever since he took over the presidency in 2001, Bush has been doing everything he can to push family planning back into the dark ages. Keen to please his religious conservative base, on the first day of his first term as president, George W. reinstated the global "gag rule". The "gag rule", first introduced by President Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980's, calls for the with-holding of U.S. financial aid to any foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) that even mentions the word "abortion" in their provision of health services to pregnant women. Thus even if a woman's life is in danger from her pregnancy, any mention of "abortion" would mean that the NGO would lose all its funding from the U.S. [2]

One casualty of this gag rule is the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). The IPPF provides reproductive health information and services to women in third world countries. These include providing information about, diagnosis and treatment sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS), gynecological care, post and prenatal care for mother and child. Providing information on abortion and its availability, if necessary, is a fundamental part of the IPPF goals for reproductive health. As a result of this its funding of around US$20 from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was terminated.

Considering the fact that 80,000 women die every year - one every seven minutes - due to unsafe abortions, IPPF's provision of abortion services is a crucial life saving campaign. It's provision of contraceptives, such as condoms, also help prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Hilary Fyfe, of the Family Life Movement in Zambia commented that the with-holding of funds is akin to murder: "I think they are killing these women, just as if they are pointing a gun a shooting. There is no difference." [3]

Not to be outdone by this early success, President Bush in 2002 withheld US$34 million of contribution, approved by both houses of Congress, to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The fund, active in 144 countries, provides contraception, family planning, and gynecological health services to women in third world countries. It also works against the spread of HIV/AIDS and against the practice of female genital manipulation. The withheld funds would have made up a substantial (more than 10%) portion of the UNFPA annual budget.

What did the UNFPA do to deserve the funds being withheld from them? According to the Bush administration, the funds were withheld due to allegations about their activities in China which supposedly involved coercion of abortion and forced sterilizations among rural inhabitants in China. The charge, made by the right-wing anti-family planning, anti-abortion, "Population Research Institute" (PRI), [a] , was used by Bush as an excuse to withhold this fund. We know that it is an excuse because in May 2002 Bush sent a fact finding team which reported that the UNFPA was not involved in any coercion programs. Before the American mission, a British delegation did the same investigation and also confirmed that there was no evidence whatsoever of any forced abortions. In September 2003, a group of U.S. (non-fundamentalist) religious leaders went to China and returned with the same conclusion. Other independent investigations have also cast serious doubts on the veracity of the claims made by PRI. [4]

Upon the announcement in 2002 of the withholding of funds, fundamentalists and Catholic "pro-life" movements were ecstatic. The Roman Catholic Church, whose irrational views on abortion are well known, must have felt its prayers were finally answered. Deal Hudson, editor of the catholic magazine Crisis gladly proclaimed that it is "good news" and that his sources told him the funds will be "permanently withheld". [5]

Indeed Hudson's sources were correct, since 2002, the Bush administration had withheld the payment to the UNFPA for the last three years - all the while using the same discredit reason of "coercive" abortion practices in China. [6] The real reason for with-holding the funds is transparently clear: the fundamentalist and Catholic supporters of the Bush administration are against any form of abortion - whether it is coerced or not is beside the point.

Indeed the excuse is even more blatantly clear when we consider the whole picture. Of its US$300 million annual budget, the UNFPA only spends US$3.5 million (around 1.2%) on China. The bulk of the funds from UNFPA goes to other third world countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas and much of it would have been for family planning and health care - not abortions. The money would have been used to help reduce the childbirth mortality in countries such as Burkina Faso, Zambia and East Timor where the mortality rate ranges from 500 to 5,000 (in East Timor) per 100,000 births. Some of the money would have been used to train midwives. In Chad, for instance, the whole country of nine million only has fifteen obstetricians. It was reported that two untrained midwives there tried to deal with a breech delivery (where the baby’s head is facing the wrong direction) by holding the pregnant woman upside down and shaking her to try and get the fetus in the "right" position! [7]

Thus the "China card" is just that: a ruse for the Roman Catholic Church and their fundamentalist allies to continue their anti-abortion crusade. And like all wars - there are casualties: the innocent pregnant women of poor countries around the world who depend on the UNFPA to safe their lives. The UNFPA estimates that the withheld fund annually would have prevented up to 2 million pregnancies, nearly 800,000 abortions, 77,000 infant and child deaths and 4,700 maternal deaths. That's a lot of blood on the hands of these "right to lifers". [8]

Asking how these numbers arise from provides us with a picture of the cruelty of the horribly misnamed "pro-life" movement. Sometimes deaths can be due simply to the lack of cheap surgical procedures. One condition that would have been easily treatable by inexpensive surgery - the type provided by the UNFPA - is called obstretic fistula. It happens when the pregnant woman is either too malnourished or too small to deliver the baby. Without medical help, "the baby's head rips a hole clear through her bladder or rectum". It has been estimated that more than 2 million women in Africa and South Asia suffers from such a condition. The baby usually dies and the mother becomes incontinent for life. [9]

Othertimes the deaths can be due to the lack of simple hospital supplies such as an oxygen. Below is a collection of two such tales in Chad as told by reporter Nicholas Kristof:

Zara Fatima, a 15-year-old girl, was in labor for four days before her family loaded her onto public transportation - the back of a truck - and took her to the dilapidated National General Reference Hospital here on Tuesday. Her blood pressure was high, 170/80, and she soon lapsed into a coma. The baby arrived stillborn. Zara needed oxygen, but the hospital had none to spare. ...Zara died...

Fatima Adoum, a pregnant 15-year-old, lies unconscious on a hospital bed, gasping for breath, convulsing and slobbering. Her arm has a two-inch suppurating burn wound, and the doctors point to it grimly as a home remedy against sorcery. The delay in getting her to a doctor has hurt her, and now she needs oxygen, but it is unavailable...Fatima's prospects are still uncertain. [10]

Thanks to the "pro-life" policies of George W. Bush, where the fertilized egg is more important than the lives of thousands of pregnant women in third world countries, these sad stories look set to multiply in the near future. [b]

Abortion is not the moral equivalent of murder, but what would one call letting thousands of women needlessly die each year when one has the power to prevent it?

Update: January 23, 2009

On January 23rd 2009, the new American president, Barack Obama, overturned the Bush policy. The move will, as a statement from Population Action International noted, "save women's lives around the world." Sanity has returned to American politics. [11]

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Notes

a.According to UNFPA officials the tactics used by the PRI to spread their false charges involves planting unfounded allegations in the local newspapers of third world countries. Once "in print" - these stories take up an air of credibility. Subsequently they are picked up by the international press, allowing world wide dissemination of clearly made up stories.
b.Throwing up our arms won't do. We can all do our part to help. Please donate to the The 34 Millions Friends of UNFPA.

References

1.Alan Cooperman and Thomas B. Edsall, "Evangelicals say they led charge for the GOP", The Washington Post, November 8, 2004
2. Molly Ivins, "Another Slap against Women: Getting around Bush's cheap move", Chicago Tribune, October 22, 2002
3."Report: Global Gag Rule Spurring Deaths, Disease,: Women's eNews, September 25, 2003
Bert Wilkinson, "Report from the Field: Gag Rule's Impact", Population Connection, February 1, 2001
IPPF Abortion: advocating for the right to safe abortion services
4.Greg Barrow, "Abortion row threatens UN funds", BBC News February 27, 2002.
"US to Withhold $34M in UN Funds", Associated Press, July 22, 2002
Diane Carman, "How to Undo a Travesty of Politics", Denver Post, June 27, 2004
Knight Ridder, "Small Advocacy Group Influences American Policy", Jodi Enda, September 22, 2002
5."US to Withhold $34M in UN Funds", Associated Press, July 22, 2002
6. "Birth Control; Help the UN Fund (Editorial)", Charleston Gazette, September 14, 2004.
David Gollust, "US Cuts Funds to UN Population Fund Agency Over 'Coercive' Policy by China", Epoch Times, July 17, 2004
Christopher Marquis, "U.S. Cuts Off Financing of U.N. Unit for 3rd Year", New York Times, July 17, 2004
7.Nicholas Kristoff, "Terror of Childbirth", Op-Ed Column, New York Times, March 20, 2004
Ian Black, "EU Replaces Cash Denied to UN Family Planning by the US", Guardian of London, July 24, 2004
8. Molly Ivins, "Another Slap against Women: Getting around Bush's cheap move", Chicago Tribune, October 22, 2002
9."No headline could sum up how sad this is", Jane Magazine March, 2004.
10.Nicholas Kristoff, "Terror of Childbirth", Op-Ed Column, New York Times, March 20, 2004
11.Obama reverses abortion-funding policy, CNN, January 25th, 2009

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