At the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference held in Bangkok, Thailand, in December, the United States delegation bravely withstood heavy criticism from the media and members of the international community as the lone defender of pro-life principles.

The conference, which is held every 10 years, was co-organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the United Nations Population Fund. It was the first of a series of regional meetings being held in advance of the 10-year anniversary of the International Conference of Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994.

Signs of the abortion controversy appeared early on in the preparatory stages leading up to Bangkok, when participants voiced their doubts as to the likelihood of a document being adopted on schedule because of the Bush administration’s stalwart refusal to compromise on any language that might be interpreted as being inclusive of abortion.

The U.S. forced a procedural vote on two key sections of the 20-page Plan of Action that dealt with the terms “reproductive rights” and “reproductive health services.” In a press conference, U.S. delegate Eugene Dewey stated that his country was seeking improvements to the texts to ensure that they “do not imply an advocacy or a support for abortion.”

UNFPA executive director Thoraya Obaid attempted to ease U.S. concerns over the “reproductive rights” language by stating “the phrase ‘reproductive health services’ is not code for the promotion or support for abortion services.” However, Obaidís attempted assurance ran counter to a statement made by Canadian delegate Andras Vamos-Goldman at a June 2001 preparatory meeting for the General Assembly Special Session on Children. At that meeting, according to Campaign Life Coalition representatives who were present at the time, Vamos-Goldman explicitly stated that the term “reproductive health services” was, in fact, abortion-inclusive.

The U.S. lost both votes in a 32-1 decision with two abstentions during the Bangkok meeting.

The events in Bangkok followed in the wake of the Bush administration’s decision to block $34 million in funds appropriated by Congress for the UNFPA. According to Dewey, the decision to block the funds was made because China, one of the UNFPA’s countries of activity, has a coercive abortion and sterilization program that violates terms of the recently re-implemented Mexico City policy. That policy prohibits any U.S. development assistance money going to abortion activities overseas.

Pro-abortion activists were quick to criticize the U.S. delegation. In an interview with, Katherine McDonald, president of Action Canada for Population and Development, asserted that Bush’s policies were out of step with most other countries and that her organization would be working to rally support for the Cairo agreement to counter U.S.-led efforts at other regional conferences that will be coming up in 2003.

Pro-life leaders such as Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and Jeanne Head of International Right to Life were quick to remind U.S. critics that the Cairo agreement brokered by 179 countries in 1994, which the Bangkok conference sought to reaffirm, was hardly unanimous, as demonstrated by the fact that over 40 countries filed reservations or made interpretive statements. Over 30 of these countries referred to the chapters and language on reproductive rights and reproductive health.

Reports that the U.S. was threatening to back out of the entire Cairo agreement raised the ire of many participants at the conference. In a report for National Right to Life News, Jeanne Head wrote that a source in the U.S. delegation in Bangkok stated that this was not the case and that despite the document’s serious flaws, it contains many positive elements – including the promotion of the human rights of women, an emphasis on a holistic approach to health care, and the elimination of poverty. These are goals that the Bush administration would like to see realized.