Earlier this month, the Trump administration made good on its promise to gut funding to the United Nations. Unsurprisingly, given the administration’s pandering to its anti-choice base, the first program on the chopping block is the lead UN agency for protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was denied funding amid unfounded claims that it supports coercive population control programs in China, and it stands to lose $32.5 million in the 2017 budget year alone.
As with the Mexico City Policy or global gag rule (which bars U.S. foreign aid for programs that promote abortion as a form of family planning), U.S. funding of UNFPA gets tossed back and forth with each new administration.
In 1985, Congress passed the Kemp-Kasten Amendment as part of appropriations law. Kemp-Kasten requires the president to deny federal funding to programs or organizations he determines are involved in coercive abortion or sterilization practices. Immediately after the amendment passed, President Reagan claimed UNFPA was in violation because they were involved in China’s population control program. Funding was withheld. In 1993, the Clinton administration resumed UNFPA funding, which was subsequently withdrawn by the Bush administration in 2002, and so on until today.
On April 3, the State Department sent U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chair of the foreign relations committee, a two-paragraph letter explaining “that the United Nations Population Fund supports, or participates in the management of, a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” Attached to the Corker letter was a memorandum of justification for invoking the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, but also, incongruously, a disavowal of the first claim. The memo concludes that “there is no evidence that UNFPA directly engages in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilizations.” Alternative facts writ large.
UNFPA has forcefully refuted all claims.
Where did these most recent allegations originate? In 1989, a few years after Kemp-Kasten passed, a Benedictine priest, Father Paul Marx, set up the Population Research Institute (PRI) in Front Royal, Virginia. Marx, then president of the anti-abortion group Human Life International (HLI), was infamous for his anti-Semitic claims that Jews, after surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald, were responsible for setting up the U.S. abortion rights movement. Marx hired Steven Mosher to run his new HLI offshoot. Mosher was a disgraced former doctoral candidate in anthropology, kicked out of Stanford University for “illegal and seriously unethical conduct” during his time researching China’s one-child policy in the 1980s. Mosher emerged from that experience staunchly anti-abortion and anti-China, a passion he converted into activism when he became president of PRI.
It was George W. Bush’s 2000 election that legitimized PRI and other fringe anti-UN, anti-abortion activists and enabled them to flourish. After Bush’s reinstatement of the global gag rule, PRI immediately went after UNFPA funding, facing off with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who supported the agency. At that time PRI had a strong ally in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). Today, Smith remains the leading anti-abortion crusader in the House.
In 2001, Smith convened a U.S. House of Representatives panel to investigate PRI’s claims that UNFPA was using its funds for coerced abortions and sterilizations in China. Citing PRI’s research, Smith advised Bush to invoke Kemp-Kasten. Funding was temporarily pulled to allow for a State Department fact-finding investigation to China. The State Department and a separate British investigation both found PRI’s research was unsubstantiated. There was no evidence of coercive practices being implemented by UNFPA. The State Department recommended UNFPA funding be resumed.
In 2002, ignoring his own State Department recommendations, Bush withheld funding from UNFPA.
To this day, Smith continues circulating allegations of UNFPA malfeasance in China using Mosher’s discredited work. Last month, he authored an opinion piece for the anti-choice Lifesite News, praising Trump’s “pro-life” bona fides, and expressing hope that the administration will correct what he sees as Obama’s disastrous record on China.
PRI is a tiny outfit; its website lists only two staff members other than Mosher, a development coordinator and a research analyst. The outsized ability of this disreputable organization to affect the health and lives of women and girls around the globe has been a concern for legislators and reproductive rights advocates for years. A now-defunct PRI webpage claimed that “our investigations have helped pro-life Members of Congress strip agencies like USAID and UNFPA of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding. Planned Parenthood and other abortion groups were frozen out of a whopping $800 million in taxpayer funding, thanks in part to research that PRI provided to pro-lifers in Congress!”
The Trump administration is readily embracing the hard-right’s position on China and UNFPA. It installed Steven Groves of the right-wing think tank, the Heritage Foundation, as chief of staff to the United States’ UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Haley is the Trump administration’s strongest advocate for defunding the very organization that she is responsible for having diplomatic relations with.
On November 18, soon after the presidential election, the Heritage Foundation issued a scathing report, recycling PRI’s claims of UNFPA’s involvement in coercive abortions and human rights abuses in China. “An Economic and Humanitarian Case for Pressing China to Rescind the Two-Child Policy” argues for an end to international aid and recommends an executive blueprint of action that the Trump administration dutifully followed on April 3.
The disastrous effect of withdrawing aid to UNFPA cannot be overstated. As UNFPA explained in its response to the funding cut, “The support we received over the years from the Government and the people of the United States has saved tens of thousands of mothers from preventable deaths and disabilities, and especially now in the rapidly developing global humanitarian crises.”
While the cuts were expected, the sham justification once again calls into question the Trump administration’s ability to parse out reality. If indeed UNFPA is complicit in human rights abuses in China, the administration needs to lay out its facts and not rely on storefront activists’ groups. So far it has not done so.