By Matthew Monks
So the Jackson Heights Democrat announced Tuesday that he is asking the Bush administration to release $34 million to the United Nations to aid the roughly 150,000 pregnant women in the dozen South Asian countries ravaged by the Dec. 26 tsunami. “They don't have the basic necessities to give birth in safe and sanitary conditions,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.), who joined Crowley on the three-day visit to Sri Lanka to survey the damage and United States' relief efforts. “Releasing these funds is a matter of life and death.”The two congressmen met with military officials and witnessed firsthand the awesome power of the wall of water that killed more than 175,000. Some 25,000 died in Sri Lanka alone. On the coast of the tear-shaped nation, they saw a gigantic barging vessel that had been lifted out of the water and thrown inland like a toy boat. Outside the city of Galle, the two witnessed the shattered remains of a commuter train were 800 passengers died. And they visited a maternity ward that was wiped out, leaving 300 patients without proper medical care. Crowley, who is the Democratic chief deputy whip, called the destruction “inconceivably overwhelming” during a news conference Tuesday at the Delhi Palace at 37-33 74th Street in Jackson Heights. That is why the congressmen sent a letter to Secretary of State-designate Condoleeza Rice asking her to release $34 million to the U.N's population fund, which supports reproductive health programs in more than 140 countries. The Bush administration has refused to contribute to the fund in recent years because it said the agency helped China conduct programs involving forced abortions. Crowley said the population fund has made $3 million available for tsunami relief in Sri Lanka and is mobilizing $7.5 million for the country's long-term needs. It is seeking an additional $27 million, which the United States could provide, he said. “It is deeply unfortunate that funding has been withheld from the (fund) due to baseless concerns over its work in China,” the letter to Rice stated. “(It) has been working to move China away from a family-planning program based in coercion to a human-rights based approach that includes contraception choice, informed consent and safe motherhood, maternal health services.”Israel said that Sri Lanka's devastated region had 15,000 pregnant women, 5,000 of whom were due in the next three months. Helping them could be a matter of national security, he said, because leaving them out to dry might make them susceptible to terrorists. “Where people are vulnerable they are exploitable,” Israel said. “And when they are exploitable they are recruit-able.” Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.