Washington — As Mexico prepares to host the UN International Conference on Population next week, concern grows here over a change in longstanding United States policy on international family planning aid.
In the face of widespread criticism, the White House has backed down on a draft policy that would have denied United States family-planning assistance to governments that advocate or support abortion services. But it has approved a cutoff of such assistance to private international organizations that underwrite any abortion programs - even though not with American funds.
Population experts and family-planning groups view even the revised policy statement as a political catering to conservative right-to-life groups. They say it reverses a 20-year bipartisan, congressionally supported commitment to international family planning. And they voice dismay that the US is going to Mexico with a delegation composed largely of members without experience in the population field and critical of longtime US policy.
Members of Congress also would like the White House to reconsider its position. Some have made repeated efforts to meet with Secretary of State George P. Shultz and White House officials, but to no avail, according to congressional sources. This week the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the subject.
''I have never come across a statement that presents such a simplistic and misleading analysis of population growth as the one written by the White House, '' testified Rep. James H. Scheuer (D) of New York at a House subcommittee hearing last week. ''This statement would represent a foreign policy embarrassment if it ever gets presented to the world in August as the 'official US policy.' ''
Rep. John E. Porter, a Republican from Illinois, charges that the new policy sets a different set of rules internationally than applied in domestic government funding and calls it ''unwise and unfair.'' Downgrading family planning will not lead to fewer abortions, he said at the subcommittee hearing.
What upsets many population experts, including administration officials, is that abortion will not be an issue for other delegations at the conference. The US, they say, will be putting forth a strong view on a narrow issue that happens to engage Americans in an election year and will in effect be telling other countries not to do something that is allowed in the US. This, it is felt, could be disruptive and hurt the US diplomatically. A few countries already have voiced concern to the State Department.
The US has long banned aid to third-world countries for promoting or supporting abortion, and officials of the Agency for International Development (AID) say that foreign governments scrupulously observe this ban. But under the new policy, governments will be asked to establish separate accounting procedures for American aid.
Also, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) will be required to give ''concrete assurances'' that it does not support abortion or ''coercive'' practices (such as economic incentives given by some governments to discourage large families) and that US contributions are not going for abortion services. The private International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) would have to stop funding abortion programs or risk losing about $11 million annually in US aid. Abortion services make up only a fraction of IPPF's budget.
Ten years ago, at the first UN population conference in Bucharest, the US delegation, headed by then-Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Caspar Weinberger, made a strong effort to convince the developing countries of the need for family planning in the face of rapid population growth. Although at first reluctant converts, most third-world countries today have strong family-planning programs as one component of economic development. And they are urging more, not less, US aid - a request that Congress is in process of meeting.
Former World Bank president Robert S. McNamara has warned that unless the developing countries bring down the rate of population growth, there will be widespread unemployment, poverty, and authoritarianism - and even more abortion and infanticide.
The present controversy over US policy revolves in part around this question. Pro-life groups and some scholars argue that population growth is not a negative factor, but in fact contributes to economic growth. For instance, Julian Simon, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of ''The Resourceful Earth, '' testified before the House subcommittee that population growth does not lead to scarcity of resources, because new methods and inventions lead to additional resources.
The revised White House policy partly embraces this view, stating that ''in the economic history of many nations, population growth has been an essential element in economic progress.''
Reflecting the President's conservative standpoint, the White House position is that the population boom is a problem only because of government control of economies. Freer systems, the argument goes, will foster economic growth, advance standards of living, and lead naturally to lower population growth.
At the same time, the White House policy statement, which incorporates State Department and AID views as well, accepts that conditions today differ from those in 19th-century Europe and that developing countries do not have time to await a gradual demographic change but must deal with population growth. This seeming contradiction has led critics to dub the statement a ''schizoid'' and ambiguous document, possibly designed to leave issues open for the US delegation to interpret as it will when it gets to Mexico.
Population control advocates say the new US focus on abortion undercuts the administration's own stated aims. They note that the more voluntary family-planning programs are provided in the developing countries, the less abortion there is.
Family-planning advocates are critical of the composition of the US delegation to the Mexico conference. It will be headed by James L. Buckley, director of Radio Free Europe, a staunch conservative who is strongly opposed to population control programs.
Population experts further note that the US policy statement, which will be delivered in Mexico, gives no attention to the importance of educating and training women. ''The fact that some states in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh still have literacy rates as low as 5 percent among rural women is the biggest handicap to family-planning programs,'' says Julia J. Henderson, a consultant to the UNFPA.