To the Editor:

Michael Hirsh reveals his bias when he blithely categorizes concern for the United Nations as somehow antithetical to women's concerns ("The Fall Guy," November/December 1999). For instance, Hirsh simplistically writes, "Many observers believe Clinton could have compromised much earlier [in paying back dues to the U.N.] had he been less beholden to women voters -- and more concerned about the United Nations."

This statement belies a dismissive attitude toward a most serious foreign-policy issue: universal human rights, which of course includes women's rights. For more than 50 years, the U.N. has been a touchstone for freedom and equality. Unfortunately, the Clinton "compromise" that Hirsh describes undermines both principles in its suppression of democratic debate and its denial of important health services to women worldwide.

The Foreign Appropriations bill of the 106th Congress allows the United States to pay nearly $1 billion in arrears to the U.N. on the condition that punitive restrictions be placed on U.S. aid to foreign family-planning programs. Clinton accepted a legislative prohibition on the use of U.S. funds for any foreign nongovernmental organizations that use their own money to perform abortions or to lobby their governments to improve abortion laws. The president was then allowed to partially waive the restriction in exchange for losing 3 percent of the $385 million international family-planning budget. This waiver triggered a $12.5 million cut from family-planning programs; of the remaining $372.5 million, only $15 million can be given to foreign groups that perform legal abortions or participate in lobbying activities on abortion.

The practice of hampering overseas organizations that engage in discussions of abortion is called "the global gag rule" for good reason. Congress penalizes foreign groups that provide essential (and legal) medical procedures, participate in the democratic process, and exercise free speech rights -- activities that would be protected by the First Amendment if carried out in the United States. In India, for example, where unsafe abortions are a principal cause of maternal mortality, organizations receiving any U.S. funds would be prohibited from using their own money to advise their government on measures that could help prevent these deaths.

By fighting the gag rule, the Clinton administration had been going much further than being responsive to women voters. It had advanced a fundamental precept of the U.N. itself -- the protection of human rights for all. Ultimately, there will be a very high price to pay in terms of women's lives and health.

Janet Benshoof

President, Center for Reproductive Law and Policy