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U.S. to Withhold Family Plan Money


Filed at 9:14 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a policy reversal, the Bush administration will not pay $34 million it earmarked for U.N. family planning programs overseas, an initiative that conservative groups charge tolerates abortions and forced sterilizations in China.

Officials in the administration, on Capitol Hill and from interest groups who monitor the issue said Sunday they have been told the decision is final. One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an announcement is likely from the State Department on Tuesday, but added the timing could change.

White House officials said privately that conservative activists have for months quietly pressured the administration to prove Bush's anti-abortion credentials by permanently denying money to the United Nations Population Fund. The fund helps countries deal with reproductive and sexual health, family planning and population strategy.

Such conservative activists strongly supported Bush in his run for the presidency, and White House political advisers have carefully tended them with an eye to his re-election. But the decision could also damage Bush's standing with moderates and women.

The White House has kept the politically delicate decision a closely guarded secret. It has refused to divulge it even to allies in Congress, such as the Pro-life Caucus.

More than a dozen administration officials, inside the White House and out, declined to comment Sunday or did not return phone calls on the matter, so the reasoning behind the decision was not clear.

Last year Secretary of State Colin Powell testified to the Senate that the agency does ``invaluable work'' and ``provides critical population assistance to developing countries.''

Bush proposed $25 million for the organization, an increase from the $21.5 million the fund got during the last year of the Clinton presidency. Key lawmakers later agreed on $34 million for the agency.

The president has already signed into law the foreign aid bill that contains the $34 million. But when he did so in January, he made a point of noting in an accompanying statement that it gives him ``additional discretion to determine the appropriate level of funding for the United Nations Population Fund.''

One administration official said Bush is now likely to channel the $34 million to family-planning organizations run by the State Department's Agency for International Development.

A study from a U.S. government fact-finding mission to China in early May reportedly found no evidence that the U.N.'s program directly or indirectly facilitates forced sterilizations and abortions in China. A British delegation visited China a month before the U.S. team arrived and its investigators did not find evidence that U.N. funds were misused for such purposes.

Bush sent $600,000 to the U.N. fund in November for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan. The money has been used to provide sanitary napkins to Afghan women and medical assistance with labor and delivery, officials said.

In advance of the administration's formal announcement, members of Congress asked Bush last week to explain why he had withheld the $34 million from U.N. after approving it in January.

The 48 lawmakers, including eight Republicans, asked Bush to meet with them so they could ``share our understanding'' of how U.N. Population Fund programs in China operate. The letter also asked the president to release the report from the U.S. fact-finding mission to China.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan promised last week that the administration will release the report when Bush's decision on the U.N. money is formally announced.

Critics of the decision said it was driven by politics.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., attributed it to the White House's ``mindless zeal to take care of their right-wing base.''

But Deal Hudson, editor of the Roman Catholic magazine Crisis, praised Bush's move.

``My information is that it's permanently withheld, and that's good news to people who think like I do,'' he said. ``The U.N. population fund is bad policy, because it relies on population control, rather than economic development to address problems of poverty, and the problem is not population, the problem is underdevelopment.''

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