on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Detroit Free Press (USA), August 4, 2004

COLUMN: President's Politics Hurts Women Worldwide


"Don't the women of this country get what Bush is doing? Why aren't more of them revolting?"

The questions erupted from one of two recent dinner companions, both admittedly activist Democrats.

I was hard-pressed to answer the inquiry about President George W. Bush, except to note that people who consider themselves pro-choice on abortion tend to be more willing to vote for people who don't agree with them than do people who consider themselves pro-life.

It makes a strange sort of sense. Those who believe in keeping abortion legal fight for choices, so if candidates choose to think differently, that's their prerogative. But for those who believe abortion is murder, you're either against any and all forms of the procedure or they're against you, politically anyway.

With that kind of zeal, the president has imposed his anti-abortion beliefs. On the domestic front, he signed the Partial Birth Abortion Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which tries to reclassify a fetus as a living human being, and rejected recommendations to make morning-after pills available over the counter.

But it's overseas -- where health care is scarce, girls can be forced into marriage as young as 12, and rape is often a weapon of war -- that his policies present the most danger to women. Too many of them lack even the most basic knowledge about preventing pregnancy or AIDS.

Every minute, a woman somewhere in the world dies in childbirth, many leaving multiple orphans behind. In that same minute, another 20 women are injured or disabled giving birth. It's not that they need the right to abortion, although they should have it; it's that they need to know how to avoid getting pregnant.

But the Bush administration's foreign policy message is clear: Fetuses -- and domestic politics -- are more important than women. Recent acts support this point:

For the first time in 30 years, the United States cut all ties and money to the Global Health Council, which seeks to improve health around the world. The council's 300 members include two organizations the pro-life crowd can't countenance: International Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Population Fund.

Planned Parenthood has long been a target, no matter that it teaches women and girls how to stay healthy and avoid pregnancy until they are ready. And the right wing loves to attack the UNFPA for working in China, where the agency has actually tried to defeat the national one-child policy but is falsely accused of feeding it.

The United States was the only one of 192 World Health Assembly members to disassociate itself from the World Health Organization's global strategy on reproductive health. U.S. officials criticized the resolution for equating sexual health rights with human rights and for saying the group would work to stop "unsafe abortions." To Team Bush, that signaled tolerance for safe abortion and could not be supported.

"The Bush administration is ignoring the reality that strengthening the health and well-being of families in poor countries will make the world a better, safer place for us all," said Jill Sheffield of Family Care International.

On the 10th anniversary of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, the United States joined others in recommitting to most of its principles -- but distanced itself from supporting reproductive health as a means of combating poverty and illness. It expressed reservations about such radical terms as "reproductive rights," "reproductive health," "reproductive health care and services," "family planning services" and "sexual health."

The ongoing global gag rule bars agencies that take U.S. family planning funds from even advocating to make abortion safer in countries where the procedure is legal. The net effect has been the closing of health care centers in areas where they are already hard to find.

Finally, for the third time in as many years, the Bush administration refused to release funding that Congress had committed to the UNFPA, again citing China. Never mind that the president's own fact-finding team contradicted the ridiculous claim that the UNFPA endorses forced abortions in China. Bush has to date cut off $93 million to the global organization that tries to arm women with the information that lets them choose when to get pregnant and have babies in hopes of preventing illness, death and, yes, abortion. It also fights the spread of AIDS, which is growing among women and is supposed to be one of the president's priorities.

Irrespective of abortion rights, the health of women is suffering around the world. Bush is not only not helping, he's making things worse.

Perhaps the president believes if he plays much of his abortion politics abroad, he'll please his extreme base at home without alienating American women.

Not if they start paying attention.

BECCA ROTHSCHILD is associate editor of the Free Press editorial page. You can reach her at 313-222-6659, at

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