|| Vatican revokes UNICEF gift in reproductive
By PATRICIA LEFEVERE
The United Nations Children's Fund and its 7,000 workers worldwide operate on a $1 billion annual budget ostensibly designed to aid the world's children in a variety of worthy ways.
Given that total, the suspension of a $2,000 donation to UNICEF's work would seem to be a tiny drop out of the bucket.
But when the giver is the Vatican, and the precipitating event is concern that UNICEF may have veered into promoting birth control or abortion, the loss could far exceed the surface value.
Further, Catholics for a Free Choice, a highly effective Washington-based reproductive rights group, jumped into the breach, seizing the chance to ratchet up its war on the Vatican's conservative views. The organization, which supports legalized abortion and has been campaigning to cut the Vatican's power at the United Nations, is the church's most trying enemy in the reproductive rights arena.
Following the Vatican's announcement about its funds, Catholics for a Free Choice sent $2,000 to UNICEF, saying it was to replace the money the Vatican had withheld. Frances Kissling, CFFC's president, said the symbolic gift is the first step in a campaign aimed at encouraging people, especially Catholics, to support UNICEF while expressing disapproval of the Vatican action.
The Vatican's decision to withhold funds was announced earlier this month by the observer mission of the Holy See at the United Nations. In its prepared statement, the Vatican asked "local pastors and church-associated institutions" to review their support for UNICEF,including the sale of UNICEF greeting cards.
UNICEF denies being involved in activities the Vatican would oppose. Madeleine Eisner, spokeswoman for UNICEF, said the organization's position on family planning "has not changed over many years." UNICEF "has no policy on contraception or abortion" and it "doesn't make its resources available to any agencies" working in these areas, she said.
John Klink, adviser to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, said in a telephone interview that UNICEF had strayed from its mandate to focus on the needs of the world's children by participating in the publication of a U.N. manual advocating the distribution of an abortifacient known as "the morning-after pill" to refugee women in emergency situations.
Eisner said the manual was the product of a 1995 interagency conference on refugee issues, which UNICEF and several other agencies -- including the World Health Organization -- attended. The U.N. Population Fund and the High Commission for Refugees published the manual.
Klink, who has attended UNICEF board meetings as an observer for nine years, said UNICEF has also lobbied in Honduras to legalize abortion. One of the agency's reports shows a woman in the Congo with a condom and birth control pills in one hand, a family planning booklet in the other, he said.
Despite requests by the Holy See that its money be used only for "morally unobjectionable child-related projects," UNICEF had given no assurances, Klink said.
The Vatican, which has a long history of cooperation with UNICEF and its traditional health and education-related projects, has the power to influence many other potential donors. Its quarrel with UNICEF could affect support from nations, agencies and ordinary Catholics. It could also seriously hamper the organization's work.
So closely have the Vatican and UNICEF worked over the years in health and education, that UNICEF has come to rely on the church's infrastructure to do its job. For example, in parts of Latin America a priest will not baptize a child until it has been inoculated. During the civil war in El Salvador the church, negotiated "days of tranquillity," during which UNICEF was able to vaccinate children.
Eisner said the Vatican's pullout is "a pity," one that is "deeply regretted. We hope we can work together again," she said. "We have had a long-standing, very close relationship with the church."
Kissling predicted that the Holy See's action would cause "acute embarrassment" to Catholics. "For the Vatican to use its symbolic donor role to intimidate and force an independent charity to follow Roman Catholic church policies on family planning services, including contraception and abortion falls far short of a Christian approach to charity," she said. "UNICEF deserves to be supported for helping children in need," she said. "But once again, the Vatican sacrifices everything to its obsession with restricting access to contraception and abortion.
Last year CFFC, along with nine co-initiators, launched a petition drive aimed at unseating the Vatican as a permanent observer to the United Nations. The petitions asks the U.N. secretary-general and member states to evaluate the appropriateness of allowing the Holy See to act on a par with states in the United Nations. While the Vatican has a voice and no vote, it lobbies heavily to promote its views.
To date some 130 national and international organizations have signed the petition.
The Vatican's central role in the worldwide clash over reproductive rights became highly public leading up to the United Nations conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, and again the following year at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Many of the 130 signatures on the petition came after the Vatican tried to have Kissling's organization denied accreditation at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing last year.
The fact that the Vatican devoted four pages in its briefing book on Beijing to Catholics for a Free Choice and the matter of the Holy See's status at the United Nations is proof that the CFFC "is becoming a big gnat on the skin of the elephant," Kissling said.
Klink said the Vatican's role at the United Nations is "moral" rather than political, and "the Holy See cannot renege on its responsibility to speak out."
In withdrawing the traditional gift to UNICEF, Archbishop Renato R. Martino, who heads the Holy See's U.N. mission, announced symbolic offerings of $1,000 each to the World Health Organization Multicenter Infant Growth Reference Study and to the U.N. Fund for the International Control of Drugs.
The Holy See donated a further $2,500 to the U.N. Development Fund for an agricultural project for rural women in a developing nation; $2,000 for the U.N. Fund for the Disabled and $1,000 for the U.N. Fund for the Victims of Torture.
National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996