A CONGRESSIONAL move to limit abortion and family planning may have a dramatic unintended consequence: It could actually cause the global abortion rate to rise.
Encouraged by the Christian Coalition and anti-abortion groups, Congress last month made deep cuts in United States funds for family-planning programs abroad. But demographers, and even some anti-abortion activists, are warning that the cuts for family planning will lead to more unintended pregnancies - and that more, not fewer, abortions are likely to result.
''We embraced the probability of at least 4 million more abortions that could have been averted if access to voluntary family-planning services had been maintained,'' Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon told his Senate colleagues this week. ''These numbers ... are as disturbing as they are astounding, particularly to those of us who are faithfully and assertively pro-life.''
The US has been barred from funding abortion services overseas since 1973. But anti-abortion activists in the US urged Congress to cut support for family-planning programs, concerned that such programs indirectly promote abortion.
''Population control that has to do with education and the use of contraceptives was not the issue,'' says Rep. Sonny Callahan (R) of Alabama, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with foreign aid. ''The issue is trying to stop the US from providing any money that might be used for abortions.''
''Our concern is that services for abortion are being provided by family-planning agencies,'' adds a spokesman for the Christian Coalition, based in Chesapeake, Va.
Lawmakers trimmed funding for population assistance by 35 percent in a foreign-aid bill that was incorporated into a ''continuing resolution'' to keep the federal government running until mid-March.
In addition to budget cuts, the legislation imposes unprecedented restrictions on family-planning programs funded by the US Agency for International Development (AID). AID is now barred from obligating any money before July 1 and only small monthly parcels thereafter - a process that leaves only 14 percent of the amount appropriated in 1995 available for use in fiscal year 1996, and which, AID officials complain, will confound the process of long-term planning.
Republican sources on Capitol Hill say cuts in family-planning funds are part of an across-the-board drive to reduce federal spending. As for restrictions on how the money is spent, says one House source, they reflect the new balance of power in the 104th Congress in favor of those who believe that family-planning agencies promote abortion - a charge family planning advocates hotly deny.
FAMILY-PLANNING advocates cite evidence indicating that cuts in family-planning services will lead to sharp increases in abortion. They point to Russia, where the absence of family-planning services has made abortion the chief method of birth control. The average Russian woman has at least four abortions over a lifetime.
''The framers of the family-planning language in [the continuing resolution] ensured, perhaps unintentionally, that the gruesome experience of Russian women and families will be replicated throughout the world, starting now,'' Senator Hatfield says.
Conversely, where family-planning services have been introduced, as in Hungary, the abortion rate has dropped dramatically.
Some 50 million couples around the world now use family-planning services paid for by US government funds. The one-third budget cut could mean one-third that number, or 17 million couples, will lose access to family planning if funds are not found from other sources, according to projections by Population Action International, a Washington-based advocacy group.
''More than 10 million unintended pregnancies could result annually,'' says Sally Ethelston, a spokeswoman for group. ''That could mean at least 3 million abortions, at least half a million infant and child deaths, and tens of thousands of maternal deaths.''
Without family-planning services, more pregnancies will occur among younger women, older women, and women who have not spaced pregnancies by at least two years, which is considered the minimum time needed to protect the health of mother and child.
The US has taken the lead since the 1960s in funding family-planning programs in poor nations. Since then, global contraceptive use has risen fivefold; fertility (the average number of children born to a woman during her reproductive years) has dropped by one-third; and the rate of global population growth has begun to slow.
Even so, the world grows by 1 million people every 96 hours, and the populations of most poor nations are projected to double within 20 to 30 years. AID officials say the cuts will retard the incipient family-planning movement in Africa, where population growth is fastest. ''If this proves to be something that does increase abortion, we'd take another look at our position,'' says the Christian Coalition spokesman.