President Bush has backed himself into quite a corner over an issue that for most Americans is a no-brainer: whether or not to continue US funding for the United Nations Population Fund.
Mr. Bush's dilemma is that the religious right, whose lead advocate in Congress is Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, has drawn a line in the sand over the issue, specifically over the UN fund's support for certain family-planning activities in China. So far, he has refused to release any of the funds Congress has appropriated for the UNFPA, as the fund is still called.
Religious conservatives argue that UNFPA, whether intentionally or not, supports a Chinese family-planning program that is at times coercive - including forcing women to undergo abortions they don't want, all to enforce a policy of one child per couple.
UNFPA counters that it opposes coercion in all forms and does not fund abortion anywhere. The fund points out that its program in China operates only in vanguard counties where birth quotas have been dropped and voluntary family planning is being tested. UNFPA justifiably argues that its program is part of the solution to China's heavy-handed approach.
Considering both arguments, Congress earmarked $34 million for UNFPA - a $9 million boost over the 2001 level. The Bush administration itself had requested $25 million in the fiscal 2001 budget. In a letter to Bush, 126 members of Congress, including the leaders responsible for the bill in both the House and the Senate, have told Bush they consider Congress's action binding and would regard a decision to withhold the money as an act of bad faith.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is on record as strongly supporting the UN population agency; the State Department is in the forefront urging the White House to release the funds. Meanwhile, more than 50 US newspapers and magazines and many overseas have urged Bush to release the funds.
Opinion polls show that the great majority of Americans favor funding for overseas family planning and most believe the US should support the UN's work in this area.
So, for the sake of satisfying a small minority in his own party, the president would give the Democrats an issue that plays powerfully with US women's groups and would reinforce growing suspicion among US allies that this country is returning to a go-it-alone foreign policy.
At a time when the United States has become painfully aware of the consequences of neglecting basic needs in the developing world, it seems especially myopic to deny help for one of the most fundamental of needs - allowing women to exercise control over their fertility, protect themselves from reproductive disabilities, and lead more independent and productive lives.
Indeed, it is ironic that after the president's and Laura Bush's stirring words in support of Afghan women, he is now considering punishing an organization that is doing as much as any to assist them.
Does Bush really want to deny family planning and other women's health services to millions of women to satisfy the zeal of a domestic religious minority? Surely the result of such an action would be many more of the abortions Chris Smith and his colleagues, and the president himself, claim to oppose.
Steven W. Sinding, former director of the population program at the US Agency for International Development, teaches public health at Columbia University.