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US policy shift on abortion raises alarm abroad

Funding restriction could mean fewer choices, more botched abortions, Latin American groups warn.

By Howard LaFranchi Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2001



MEXICO CITY

During the 2000 American presidential campaign, many observers across Latin America said it hardly mattered who won - little would change.

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But President George W. Bush's first executive order this week - banning US foreign aid to international organizations or groups in foreign countries that promote abortion or include it as an option in their counseling - has some people thinking again.

Family planning and women's rights advocates from Mexico to Chile say the order may have little direct impact on abortion in the region, since the US already prohibits using its money to either provide or promote abortions in other countries. But they worry that the order will chill efforts to guarantee family planning services to millions of impoverished Latin Americans.

Efforts to lower the high number of clandestine abortions that result in thousands of deaths every year across Latin America will also be thwarted, they say, as movements to guarantee reproductive services and expand either nonexistent or extremely limited abortion rights are set back.

"Bush is making himself the accomplice of clandestine abortion, and thus of terribly high maternal mortality among poor women," says Susana Vidales, spokesperson for the Group for Information on Reproductive Choice (GIRE) in Mexico City.

The Bush White House emphasized that the $425 million approved last year for foreign family-planning programs is not being reduced. Though that reassured family planning experts, it did not quiet their criticism of a measure they insist will be counterproductive.

Conservative policy reborn

The Bush order returns US aid policy to what Ronald Reagan established in 1984 and was followed under George Bush but reversed by Bill Clinton in 1993.

Ms. Vidales says the new government of social-conservative President Vicente Fox will see thinking paralleling its own in the Bush anti-abortion directive and be encouraged by it.

"There's a coincidence between the message Bush is sending with this measure and the emphasis of Fox's government and party," she says, referring to Mr. Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN).

PAN state officials in Baja California sparked a national debate last year when they barred access to an abortion to a 14-year-old rape victim - though the victim supposedly had a legal right to an abortion in such a case.

Experience around the globe demonstrates that access to a wide range of contraceptives and family planning options ends up reducing abortion numbers, says Julie DaVanzo, the director of Population Matters, a population policy program of the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "Bush's action can be expected to lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies around the world, and in turn to abortions," Ms. Da Vanzo says.

An estimated 80,000 women die annually as a result of botched abortions, according to international studies.

The impact of illegal abortions is particularly acute in Latin America, where the Roman Catholic Church remains a dominant social force and many countries ban abortion in any circumstance. Latin America averages about 9 percent of the world's abortions annually, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, but about 20 percent of all illegal abortions.

"Bush can only do what is allowed by the American Constitution, but if his action ends up going against women's rights around the world, then it is an error," says Teresa Rodriguez Allendes, chief of the international relations department of Chile's National Service for Women.

Chilean experience

Chile is often cited as an example of a country where a conservative society with a complete ban on abortion has not meant low abortion numbers. Official figures list about 80,000 abortions annually in Chile, a country with a population of about 15 million. But those numbers only count declared cases - women arriving at hospitals seeking help with the consequences of a bad abortion, for example - and thus "only represent the tip of the iceberg," Ms. Rodriguez says.

US abortion opponents are defending the reinstated restrictions. "Americans do not want to be in the business of promoting the agenda of abortion on demand," Andy Napoli, spokesman for abortion opponent Rep. Chris Smith (R.) of New Jersey, told The Associated Press. "Organizations that are doing family planning, which is a worthwhile activity, have to make a decision: Are they primarily about family planning, or are they primarily about abortion?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society