Once again, abortion at center of foreign aid debate

Illinois Rep. John Porter parts from almost all of his Republican colleagues in Congress.

He would like Congress to boost dramatically foreign aid for family planning, thereby dampening the population explosion in the world.

"I cannot think of a more important issue for life on this planet, nor a more important human right than to plan the number and spacing of one's own children," Mr. Porter says.

To his consternation, the 2001 foreign assistance funding bill is once more "bogged down in an issue that has nothing to do with it - abortion."

A Republican-led Congress and the White House are at odds again over a provision its opponents call a "Global Gag Rule." It denies US family-planning aid to foreign healthcare providers involved with legal abortion services or engaged in political speech for or against abortion.

This issue has become an annual Washington battle.

Porter suspects the bill will be the last matter settled between the Republican leadership and President Clinton before Congress adjourns, perhaps Oct. 14 or 15.

That was the case last fall. Mr. Clinton then gave in to Congress in return for getting funding to pay off its debt to the United Nations.

The presidential candidates are also divided on the matter

On the domestic scene, Texas Governor George W. Bush is antiabortion; Vice President Al Gore is for abortion rights.

On the foreign aid question, Mr. Bush has said he would reinstate the "Mexico City policy," a supposedly antiabortion rule imposed by his father when in the White House and earlier by President Reagan.

Mr. Gore, long committed to family planning aid, has said he opposed "what the White House ended up doing" last year.

At this time, Gore should urge Clinton to veto any bill that includes the Global Gag Rule, says Population Action International (PAI) in Washington. If not, "his legacy of standing up for free speech and international family planning will be severely undermined," the policy group says.

Almost eight years ago, and two days after being sworn into office, Clinton repealed the Mexico City policy. That policy was imposed by presidential directive. A Republican-led House couldn't reimpose the rule easily as it faced a presidential veto.

The Gag Rule, however, is law. That's unlikely to change this year even though a majority in the Senate opposes the rule and it isn't part of that house's appropriations bill this year.

Porter suspects the rule will survive both the congressional process and the bargaining with the White House.

Probably some other legislation sought by Clinton will be held hostage for the rule, congressional insiders suspect.

In his budget proposal for 2001, Clinton sought $541.6 million for family planning, up $169 million from 2000. The Senate bill provides $425 million, the House bill $385 million.

PAI and other population-interested groups calculate that an extra $169 million would provide 11.7 million couples with access to contraception. This would result in 4.3 million fewer unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million fewer abortions, and 500,000 fewer miscarriages.

Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, has some doubts as to the accuracy of the PAI calculations on averted pregnancies.

"Human beings are not beasts," he says. If modern contraceptives are not "subsidized" by foreign aid, poor couples may use other ways to avoid births, ranging from abstinence to infanticide.

PAI charges that the Gag Rule increases abortions by reducing access to family planning. The service is unavailable to 150 million poor married couples from around the world, despite an expressed desire to have it. Family planning includes contraception, prevention of sexually transmitted disease, and prenatal care.

The Gag Rule, if imposed on Americans, would be unconstitutional, notes PAI.

A staffer for a pro-Gag Rule congressman replies, "Whenever you are putting the American people's hard-earned tax dollars overseas, it is not unreasonable to put restrictions on how it is spent."

Congressman Porter holds that 75 to 80 percent of Americans favor helping people in poor countries with family planning.

"If you don't give people the means and understanding of voluntary family planning, you end up with more abortions," he says.

Porter worries about continued rapid population growth in the poorest nations, where half the population may be under age 15.

"It can produce political instability and poverty that is a threat to all life on this planet," he says. "It is a problem for every person. We live in a global economy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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