In the global war against overpopulation, the Reagan years have led the United States from a position of international leader to ``odd man out.'' This, at least, is the view of most professionals in the international family planning field. The US still spends more than any other nation on bilateral family-planning programs overseas. But its spending has declined from $288 million in 1985 to $233 million this year, while requests for family planning aid from developing countries are increasing. Also, the US has stopped supporting the major international population agencies in an effort to end abortion and coercive practices in family planning programs worldwide.
Since 1986, the US has withheld contributions to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), because it funds population programs in China, which the US has accused of engaging in forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations.
China criticized the Reagan administration's action. A 1987 statement from its official news agency said: ``The US decision is ... an absurd charge against the UNFPA's activities and a blow at the UN efforts to control excessive population growth.''
In 1985, the US stopped funding Asian and African programs of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) because the family planning programs of some of its affiliate countries include abortion. (The US still funds IPPF programs in Western Hemisphere countries where abortion is illegal.)
In 1984, the US threatened to cut off support from the Pathfinder Fund, a private US agency involved in overseas family planning, because it spent private monies (less than 6 percent of its budget) on abortion. Pathfinder dropped all connection with abortion programs.
Meanwhile, a number of developing countries have adopted family planning policies for the first time - notably in sub-Saharan Africa, where birth rates are the highest in the world. These countries have begun asking UNFPA for assistance, and the agency is hard-pressed to meet the demand.
The US policy ``is having an effect,'' says UNFPA spokesman Hugh O'Hare, because it comes at a time when more funding is needed than ever before.
Furthermore, Reagan administration policies have led to more unwanted pregnancies and more, not fewer, abortions, charges Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute, an independent educational agency here.
``In 1981 there were 30 million abortions a year worldwide. Abortions have zoomed to 60 million a year.'' Mr. Fornos says this figure, which he calls ``conservative,'' comes largely from hospital records of women seeking treatment for injuries incurred during illegal, ``back alley'' abortions.
The Reagan administration still sees the US as a leader in world population control efforts.
``...The US [accounts for] nearly 45 percent of all donor support in developing countries,'' Alan Woods, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID) said in a statement last May. ``Since taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration has spent nearly $2 billion on family planning programs. That's more than the entire amount spent by the four previous administrations ....''
But critics of the administration's policies say this support is the result of congressional backing of population efforts. In fact, in 1981, when AID presented its request for funding for 1983, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, recommended that it eliminate its entire budget for population programs.
Population experts also contend that Reagan's policies have weakened global population control efforts, sending signals of flagging commitment when an urgent drive by a ``united front'' of donor nations is needed.
Indeed, population workers are looking ahead optimistically to the next administration. They are confident that, whoever wins the election in November, US support for population control activities is bound to improve.
Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis recently stated, ``Given the direct relationship between overpopulation and environmental degradation, a reversal of the [current administration's] policy would be both substantively desirable and conducive to restoring our role as a global leader on environmental and population issues.''
And a coalition of Republican lawmakers has urged the Republican Platform Committee to ``help reduce abortion by refunding voluntary family planning services abroad,'' including agencies like UNFPA and IPPF.
At a recent debate in Texas, Bush said he favored international family planning efforts. He is also on record as being strongly anti-abortion. Family planning groups say that, despite their repeated inquiries, he has as yet given no indication of his position on the funding of population agencies.
So far, the economic impact of the US withdrawal from multilateral agencies has been largely offset by other donors, including new ones like the Soviet Union.
However, funding of international agencies remains between 25 and 50 percent lower than the amounts the agencies have requested. In the past, US support of UNFPA accounted for about 30 percent of the agency's budget. Japan is the larget contributor to this year's budget of $175 million.
Population advocates lament the fact that 140 UNFPA country programs must do without US funds because of charges that the Chinese government practices coercive abortions and sterilization. Moreover, O'Hare says UNFPA's programs do not involve coercive methods.
``None of our money is used to support abortion,'' he says. ``The UN does not consider abortion as a method of family planning. Our position is that all couples should have access to information and materials on family planning, so they can make a free choice. If we had any indication that coercion is being practiced with our money we would pull out immediately.''
In 1974, Congress prohibited the use of US funds for abortion-related activities overseas. But the policy to deny US funding to any agency, or government, that uses any other monies for abortion dates from the the UN international conference on population held in Mexico City on world population in 1984.
At the conference, Reagan staff-member James Buckley greatly worried population supporters when he declared that the US government does not perceive population growth to be either good or bad, but rather, ``neutral,'' and that, instead of working to limit population growth, developing countries should encourage free-market, enterprise economies that will address economic woes.
A Washington district court recently ruled that AID's withholding of funds from private agencies that perform abortions is unconstitutional. AID plans to appeal the ruling, but family planning workers hope it will lead to a lifting of the constraints imposed by the Mexico City policies.