January 26, 2001


A Policy Divided Against Itself Should Not Stand

By Mary Jo McConahay

President George W. Bush's decision to rescind current policy toward foreign family planning agencies will result, tragically, in more abortions.

To understand this, consider the daily round for health workers in any one of the thousands of grassroots family programs now receiving U.S. aid.

Walk or ride a slow bus (funds rarely cover a car) to a remote location, fish through near-empty medicine cabinets (funds rarely provide enough medicine) to find the de-worming pills or oral rehydration supplies women seek for their children before they ask for contraceptives for themselves.

Or it means a day of carrying an anatomically correct poster door to door in an urban misery belt where few can read or write. "We have organs we see, and organs we don't see," I heard a 28-year-old local health educator in Guatemala City explain to a woman of 39, "and this is where the man's seed joins with our seed to make the baby."

The older woman, barefoot in the mud, looked at the picture as if she had never seen anything like it before. Asked how many children she had, the woman answered in the two-part fashion of the poor, "Seven — four alive."

The overwhelming emphasis of overseas family planning programs subsidized by U.S. dollars is on ensuring that pregnant women give birth to healthy youngsters and on keeping them that way. Often, this means assisting women to become financially independent, even in a small way.

One of the 138 partner organizations in 40 countries connected to the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), a 30-year-old Washington-based non-profit, created a milk cooperative in northeast India. When one of the women (there are hundreds) delivers the product of her single cow to a collecting station she finds medics and family planning advice.

In a tiny project in central Guatemala, young teen-age girls learn to sew beautiful aprons for sale in the market. An hour per session is given to sex education. This U.S.-funded program gives girls a skill — and information they won't get at home. In this way, it is possible to delay the onset of sexual relations — an important step in areas where girls have babies by age 14.

U.S. taxpayer dollars do not fund abortions abroad — that has been outlawed since l973. For that matter, neither funded programs nor planning experts consider abortion a safe or necessary method of birth control.

In four months of interviewing ordinary women about reproductive health in Mexico and Guatemala, I found not one who advocated abortion as a planning "option" or a "right" — nor anyone who thought it a "wrong." The Roman Catholic Church takes a strong public stand against abortion in those countries, but even outside the Church, abortion is widely considered a tragedy, although sometimes unavoidable.

"We use the stone method," said a middle-aged mother of six in a Mexican village. At night, when no one can see, a woman trudges up and down the precipitous cliffs with a boulder strapped to her back until she aborts.

Worldwide, some 200,000 to 400,000 die from illegal, unsafe abortions each year, most in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. Others are mutilated or rendered infertile.

Should any of the thousands of U.S.-assisted family planning programs — using money from another source — advocate for safe abortions in a country where they are illegal or perform safe abortions where legal, it can lose all U.S. funding, including for humanitarian child welfare or adolescent education outreach. Even small cuts can close shoestring operations.

The requirements set by President Bush revert to those presented by President Reagan at the l984 population conference in Mexico City. They are extreme.

If a sex-education pamphlet for youth includes the question, "What is abortion?" that trips the cut-off (this happened to a prestigious Mexican program).

If women are told under any circumstances that abortion is an option for ending pregnancy, funds can be cut off.

The decision on whether a given program meets the guidelines rests with the Bush administration, but until directives are in place, agencies do not know precisely what to expect.

The United Nations Population Fund receives $25 million from Washington yearly, for instance, and spokesman Alex Marshall says President Bush's new policy "won't have an effect because we don't support abortion in any way, shape or form." But from l984 to l993, the U.S. contribution was "zero" because the agency cannot withhold funds from UN member nations where abortion is legal.

At a time when intelligent, community-based planning programs are making headway in providing care to families who desperately want it, more money — not threats of less — ought to be going out. If Bush's decision eliminates or weakens programs among the poorest, there will be more unplanned pregnancies, and in a real world of few safe harbors, sadly more — not fewer — unsafe abortions.

Mary Jo McConahay has written on health and population issues for Sierra and other publications.

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