Trump officials say the UN supports coercive abortion in China. But does it?

The World
Chinese boy bundled up. Critics say that the UNFPA has supported coercive abortions of women who tried to have more than one child

In slashing $32 million of funding to the United Nations Populations Fund, also known as the UNFPA, earlier this month, the Trump administration slung a decade-old nefarious charge: The agency supports the coercive abortion of Chinese female fetuses.

To many in China, this came as a surprise.

“We regret this decision because the UNFPA was not helping Chinese women get abortions,” said Mengjun Tang, a Beijing-based fellow with the China Population and Development Research Center and who has worked with the UN. “UNFPA was helping to make sure women were not being pressured to have an abortion.”  

The UNFPA also vigorously denied the accusation, with one senior official calling it “absurd.” Other critics say it's a lame excuse to cut development dollars — a reckless accusation intended to cover up an anti-woman agenda.

So where did that accusation come from, and is the US turning a blind eye to coercive abortions still going on in China? 

The Trump administration via the US State Department said in an April 4 letter announcing the cuts that the determination was made based on the fact that China’s family planning policies still involved coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization, and the UNFPA partners with them.

Both of these points are true.

For decades, the Chinese government has forced abortions on pregnant women in its effort at population control — as many as 330 million abortions have taken place in China since 1980, according to a Chinese health ministry report. After China first implemented its one-child policy in 1980, horror stories followed, of women dragged out of their homes by government officials and forced to have abortions. Some women were forced to be sterilized or have intrauterine devices. Government officials were often incentivized or promoted for keeping their region’s fertility in check.

The New York Times op-ed writer and former China bureau chief Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, “Perhaps no government policy anywhere in the world affected more people in a more intimate and brutal way than China’s one-child policy.”

Given Chinese culture's emphasis on boys, this policy played out worse for female fetuses and infants, many of whom were terminated and killed, so the parents could have a subsequent chance at a boy. The result of this is a population today with about 30 million more men than women. And that has implications for security, economic growth and health, as was first documented in “Bare Branches” by Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer.

But are coercive abortions still happening? Yes, but they are rare, it seems. Coercive abortion is officially illegal in China, and according to China expert Leta Hong, author of "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” the practice was always unevenly executed, with many forced abortions occurring in the countryside by government civil servants looking for promotions or trying to avoid penalties for not keeping their birth rates in check.

There may still be cases, but the practice has decreased significantly since the 2000s, and even more so since China officially lifted its one-child policy last year, Hong says. There are still examples, though, such as the one that made headlines globally in 2015. 

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both said that China's new two-child policy still relies on forced sterilizations and abortions to keep population growth in check. 

US-based religious and conservative groups — many of whom are influential inside the Trump administration — say the practice is widespread, and have accused Hillary Clinton and others of turning a blind eye. They say UNFPA is definitely participating in coercive abortions. 

“The UNFPA’s silence in the face of decades of forced abortion has been a sword in the womb of millions of women and babies in China,” says Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, who wrote she was “thrilled” by the decision to defund UNFPA because their partnership with Chinese family planning officials amounts to complicity.  

Clues to exactly how the conservative women's groups and the US government make the connection can be found in a 2002 letter from State department officials working for President George W. Bush, who also cut UNFPA funding. They claimed its involvement with Chinese population planning officials “allowed the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion.” 

For example, the letter said the millions spent on Chinese family planning activities include expenditures for equipment such as computers and data-processing equipment that, while not explicitly intended to relate to abortion, do end up being used to those ends. For example, they say those computers were also used to keep a database record of all women of childbearing age in the area or to pay off officials who maintain their birth quota.

However, speaking off the record, a top UNFPA official told me there is a misunderstanding of the work UNFPA does in China.  

The Chinese office of UNFPA had a budget of less than $2 million, and its handful of staff members were doing evidence-based advocacy around issues like cervical cancer protections, aging issues and gender imbalance. The agency does partner with a Chinese entity that implements China's family planning policy, however that relationship has been effective in steering them toward less draconian family planning policies, the official says. 

The UNFPA points out US-led investigations in 2001 and again in 2017 into the agency's work in China came to the same conclusion: The UNFPA doesn't directly engage in forced abortion or sterilization.

The UN says having a presence working in women’s health in China actually helps prevent coercive abortions by using research to advocate for alternative approaches. And when they do hear of cases, they can bring them to the attention of the Chinese government. In his recent column in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof says the UNFPA persuaded China in 1992 to switch to a more effective IUD, “averting half a million abortions a year,” and has been a positive force there since.

As for the majority of the US-funded programs for women at the UNFPA that will be cut — the remaining $30 million — conservative groups say this is money that will go elsewhere — shifted away from abortion and contraception and towards maternal health. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, cheered the withholding of funds because, he said, the money would be redirected to maternal health and nonabortion reproductive health programs in developing countries at the US Agency for International Development. 

However, that remains to be seen, too. USAID funding is also in the process of being slashed, including the entire budget for the office of Global Women’s Issues, according to budget documents leaked by Foreign Policy magazine earlier this week. 

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