International Development Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am benefiting from the hon. Lady's comments, but she is confusing religious matters with bureaucratic matters. Does she not agree that China has an overt and blatant position on coercive abortion? Would she care to comment on the choice that that position offers women? Will she also comment on the role that UNFPA plays in providing a choice to women who have no choice?

Dr. Tonge: I shall come to that, but I wanted to clarify a few issues to begin with. It is important that we are clear in our head about where the proposers of the amendment, both here and in the other place, are coming from. It is important to understand the different views that people hold on the subject.

If one visits many developing countries, one finds that for social, cultural and religious reasons, women are condemned to a life of childbirth. They do nothing else but give birth and then give birth again, until they eventually die. I remember hearing, in a village in Bangladesh, the famous quotation that goes all around that country, that

    ``lucky is the man in Bangladesh who loses his wife and not his land.''

The reason for that attitude is that he can always replace his wife, but not his land. That is how women are regarded. Bangladesh has the highest maternal death rate in the world. If they give birth and they lose their life, well, that is too bad.

It is important to examine the work of the NGOs. They are doing family planning work, of course. They are giving women the right to choose whether they get pregnant or not, which can be very difficult in developing countries. It is a delicate business, which crosses many cultural boundaries. The organisations are trying to improve maternal health and improve child mortality, which is so terrible in developing countries. They are trying to improve the genital health of many women who on many occasions contract HIV/AIDS because they have other infections that make them more prone to catching the disease.

The organisations are battling against HIV/AIDS. They are battling, in many countries against the aversion to men using condoms because they are banned by the Roman Catholic Church. There are many worries in that area that we must take into account, and the NGOs are doing fantastic and stalwart work in the field. They are tackling education, maternal health, reproductive health and family planning, which are so important to the future of those countries. I have seen the projects of organisations such as UNFPA, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International all over the world and I salute them for their work.

Some NGOs do menstrual extraction, which is a form of very early abortion. Many people would object to that, but the alternative in those countries is to have an unwanted pregnancy terminated illegally in the villages using bits of twigs and branches, rubbish and chemicals and other practices. That is to return to a far worse situation than that which existed in this country before the Abortion Act 1967, because women's health in the developing countries is poorer to begin with. I was a medical student and a junior hospital doctor in the days before that Act. I had to look after women who had come in after illegal abortion and I had to watch them die of septicaemia or a ruptured uterus. There was sheer desperation in those women, because they could not contemplate a pregnancy.

Dr. Lewis: With the best will in the world, I cannot see what that has to do with the amendment. The hon. Lady is talking about women who are desperate to have abortions. The amendment concerns women who do not want to have abortions being forced to do so.

Dr. Tonge: Indeed. I am, just as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) did, giving you a lot of background to put the matter into context. I do not apologise for that, because it is very important for you to understand what the organisations are battling against and the work that they are doing. You are asking for funding to these organisations to be stopped—

The Chairman: I am not, actually.

Dr. Tonge: The hon. Member for New Forest, East is asking for funding to these organisations to be stopped on the grounds that in some areas of China, coercion may be occurring with respect to abortion and sterilisation.

Mr. Leigh: I specifically said that I was not trying to cut off funding for those organisations. The amendment does not cut off funding for the organisations but for programmes that involve coercive population control programmes.

Dr. Tonge: But does not the hon. Gentleman understand that an organisation practising in China will not only be doing abortion or coercive abortion? It will be involved in a range of activities in a particular area. That is why I went into the background of reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health and family planning. If funding for an organisation is cut off on the grounds that some little corner of it is engaged in coercive practices—I have evidence, as does the hon. Gentleman, that that is decreasing and is now almost non-existent—all the other work will be stopped. The organisation will not be allowed to operate. That disadvantages the vast majority of women for the sake of the examples that the hon. Gentleman has given us.

I also want to refer to the research. An independent internal review team from the United Nations, not a United States review team, visited in 1997, August and November 1999 and between May and June 2001. Its report is available from the all-party group's adviser, and the hon. Member for Gainsborough could e-mail her today to ask for it. It clearly states that reforms have begun in China since 1994, where there has been a big change in thinking and methodology, and a transition from a bureaucratic, coercive approach.

UNFPA continues its good reproductive health projects in China, and the indicators show that birth rates have decreased since 1998 from 11.44 to 10.62 per thousand. The hon. Gentleman may not like that fact. The abortion ratio has decreased from 0.18 to 0.11. The maternal mortality rate has decreased from 62.9 in 100,000 to 52.2 in 100,000. The female sterilisation rate has decreased from 35.8 to 25.5. I do not know whether that last decrease is because women prefer other methods of family planning, or because coercive sterilisation has stopped. The UNFPA projects appear to have influenced senior and mid-level Government officials significantly, especially as a vehicle to introduce strategic thinking and sexual reproductive policy changes.

It is important to try to solve the dilemma that faces NGOs in such matters, which is whether they stay in a country where there is abuse of human rights. They may not like everything that goes on there, but they either stay and try to bring about change and make lives different, or they withdraw completely and allow the relevant Government to carry on as they will. The first option seems by far preferable. It is important to support the work of such organisations in a way in which the US has not. We can emphasise the priorities that we want them to have, but we should support their work on changing attitudes, as education is the only factor that will make change happen. People will have to work as medical missionaries in reproductive health to change the attitudes of Governments and patients if we are ever to have change.

I am convinced that education to free women from the burden of continual childbirth would be good not only for individual women, but for the economic growth of a country. Ultimately, it would be good for us, as we would not have the problems associated with poverty in the third world.

UNFPA, Marie Stopes International, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Family Planning Association are doing some of the most essential work for humankind. We should support them rather than condemning them on the grounds that abuse may go on in some corners of China.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): I shall be brief, and shall not repeat arguments that have been made. I agree with the opening remarks made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. Coerced abortion and sterilisation has taken place for many years and continues in large parts of China. It has nothing to do with religious belief. No one of any religious persuasion is in favour of it.

Some information gives the impression that UNFPA has little or no influence in China, but the hon. Member for Richmond Park gives us plenty of evidence that it has a tremendous positive influence, and is a force for change and for good. There is some evidence to suggest that the abortion rate is lower in areas where UNFPA is working. Can the Minister give us information to persuade us that the UNFPA programme is a force for good and a force for change in China?

Dr. Tonge: We all agree that we do not want anyone to be coerced into abortion or sterilisation. I hope that we also agree that women should not be coerced into keeping an unwanted pregnancy and men should not be coerced into not using condoms that would prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and further pregnancies. We must remember the other side of the coin. I have seen many examples of coercion the other way.

10.30 am

Tony Cunningham: There will be all sorts of arguments in that respect, from various sources, but I want to focus on the amendment, which is about coerced abortion and sterilisation. Can the Minister assure us that the UNFPA programme is a force for good and for change, and can he give us an assurance that no money from British taxpayers will be used to fund coerced abortion or sterilisation now or in the future?

Dr. Julian Lewis: I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, whom I have known and admired for 20 years—25 is a slight exaggeration—does not intend to press the amendment to a vote, because if he did so, I should be very torn. Despite the apparent obscurity of my first intervention, somewhere in my comments is a germ of common sense; I fear that if we do not like one of the practices of an organisation that is engaged in multifarious practices, we shall fail in our aim of stopping the practice that we do not like unless we cut off all funding from that organisation. If we cut off funding only from the activity of which we disapprove, the organisation will shuffle its finances, and use its untied contributions to make up for the reduced contribution from the international development budget.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough must face up to the fact that if the amendment became law and Britain withheld funding for programmes of which we disapproved, organisations would simply use the money that we gave them for programmes of which we did approve to release money from countries that did not restrict its use and use that money to fund the programmes of which we disapproved. I say that from an agnostic position; I am purely looking at the matter analytically.

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