Defunding UNFPA: A Moral Analysis: Is There Evidence of Coercion in China's Family Planning Program?

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ETHICAL DECISIONS TAKEN IN Washington, DC, sometimes have global consequences. Never was this more true than with respect to a decision taken by Secretary of State Colin Powell on July 21, 2002, to halt $34 million in US funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). I became involved in this issue when, in early September 2003, I served as a member of a nine-person delegation of US religious leaders and ethicists that traveled to China to meet with those associated with the UNVPA program there. [See page 25.]


Our trip was faced with some novel moral questions that we hoped to answer by careful reflection and by information gathering during our travel to China. At the heart of the debate were reports of coercive practices, including forced abortions and sterilizations resulting from the Chinese policy of controlling birth rates. These reports and pressure from antiabortion forces in the US contributed to the passage in the US Congress in 1985 of the Kemp-Kasten Amendment. This measure, which has been repassed in substantially unchanged form every year since, forbids funding for "any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."

The Kemp-Kasten Amendment reflects a moral objection to coerced abortion and sterilization. Although one could ask whether circumstances might not sometimes justify the use of coercion to accomplish vital demographic objectives-such as when an exploding population poses a grave threat to many people's lives or health--that debate was beyond our purview. We sought to determine whether the Chinese program is, in fact, coercive. To answer this question, we have to understand what coercion amounts to in a moral sense, and whether features of the Chinese program make it reasonable to conclude that it involves "coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization." If this question were to be answered in the affirmative--and we will see that it is doubtful that it can be--a further moral question had to be answered in order to justify a halt in US funding for UNFPA. When does involvement in others' deeds amount to "support or participation" in them?

First, there is the question of coercion. In moral terms, we can define coercion as the intentional infliction of significant evils (or threat to inflict evils) on another person or persons against their will in order to make them behave (against their will) in a way one desires. (1) Drawing on the work of my colleague Bernard Gert, these evils include: death, pain (physical or psychological), disability and loss of freedom or pleasure? (2) For an act or threat to be coercive, one must not only inflict or threaten to inflict these evils, but the intensity, of the evil inflicted or threatened must be significant. Modest degrees of evils involve disincentives, but they may not be coercive. For example, a motorist who is threatened with a fine for speeding is not usually regarded as being "coerced" into not speeding. On the other hand, police who point their guns at an onrushing car to induce its driver to stop are using coercion. This distinction with respect to the intensity of evils is important. Because coercion is seen as reducing one's freedom to act, the claim that one has been coerced can be an excusing consideration in both ethics and law. (3) The claim that one was coerced by threat of death, for example, can mitigate one's culpability if one is accused of being part of a criminal conspiracy. However, one who violates a moral rule or civil law for insignificant reasons, such as a threat to have a small amount of money taken, can hardly invoke "coercion" as an excusing consideration.

Even though coercion involves the infliction of significant evils (or threat to do so) against a person's will, it is not always morally wrong. It can be used in good or morally justifiable ways (the threat to use lethal force to stop a violent person is one example). …