FIVE hundred million women around the world do not want any more children, according to the Population Institute in Washington, D.C. But for many of them limiting the size of their families remains an impossible dream; they have no access to contraception, no access to even rudimentary education about reproduction.
President Clinton has asked Congress to renew funding for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The United States was once a leader in international population assistance. But in 1984, in what is known as the Mexico City Declaration, President Reagan cut the funds because his administration opposed abortion as a means of family planning, particularly in countries such as China, where coerced abortions reportedly exist.
The cuts meant that Planned Parenthood was forced to cancel programs in 18 countries.
Even as we insist that abortion must be a matter of individual decision, we must also insist that abortion is not an acceptable means of family planning; and coerced abortions are particularly abhorrent.
Yet at a time when the world's population stands at nearly 5.5 billion and grows by a billion people every decade, it is imperative that appropriate birth-control methods for voluntary family planning be freely accessible to all.
Poor countries are making some progress. More than half of couples in developing countries now use some form of contraception, up from only 10 percent of couples 30 years ago. Yet 3 billion young people will enter their reproductive years in this generation. And 90 percent of the 100 million people born last year live in the poorest countries, where environmental resources are strained and cities are bursting with rural migrants who have come to the city in search of work.
As one way of assuring that US funds are not used for coerced abortions, Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland is drafting a bill that would restore money to the UN Fund but prohibit aid to UN population programs in China.
Beyond contraception, cultural attitudes and social patterns must change. Nations must work to empower women; high female literacy is tied to more informed choices on childbearing, and to generally smaller families.
In those developing countries where girls do not have an opportunity for secondary education, women give birth to an average of seven children. But in areas where 40 percent of women have received a secondary education, they have only three children, on average.
Infant mortality must also be reduced, so that couples do not compensate for potential deaths by having more children than they want. Finally, men must learn to share the responsibility for family planning, for how many children are brought into the world.
These are long-term goals. More immediately, restoring aid for family planning abroad offers developing countries humane help for an urgent problem.
If parents in developing countries are able to practice voluntary family planning and thereby limit the number of mouths they must feed, their smaller families may dare to hope for a future that promises more opportunities than previous generations have had.