Needed: Family Planning Funds

By Feb. 1, President Clinton is expected to present to the new Congress a finding that the current method of dispensing international population assistance is harmful and counterproductive to US program efforts, and unquestionably it is.

In an outrageous attempt to watch United States family planning efforts overseas die a slow death, Congress last year approved $385 million for these vital humanitarian programs in 1997. Congress further specified that the money could not be dispensed until July of this year, and even then at a rate of no more than 8 percent a month.

Since the 1997 fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 1996, and ends on Sept. 30, 1997, it is obvious that the legislation was calculated to undermine US efforts to assist developing countries with their family planning needs. The measure is an especially cruel hoax considering that some 500 million women need and want to regulate their fertility but lack access to contraceptives.

Moreover, 585,000 women die annually from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. The World Health Organization believes that the provision of family planning to those who need and want it will reduce maternal mortality by one-fifth.

Sources at the Office of Population in the US Agency for International Development (AID) say the funding restrictions and delays are adding up to millions of dollars in administrative costs. The result is that fewer family planning services are being provided, the health of a great number of women is jeopardized, and government funds are wasted because of unwarranted micromanagement by Congress.

Meanwhile, other development programs - such as child survival, championed by Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, Congress's leading opponent of international family planning aid - will be adversely affected because their administrative costs are derived from AID's overall operations budget.

Perhaps the most reprehensible element of the Byzantine metering of international population funds is that it is expected to increase abortions in the world's poorest countries, though its principal architects, Congressman Smith and House Appropriations chairman Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, purport to be abortion opponents.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that reducing family planning funds is a sure-fire way to increase abortions. A 35 percent reduction of population spending last year was estimated to have caused 1.6 million additional abortions, and a nine-month moratorium plus metering may lead to an even greater number.

If both the US Senate and House of Representatives concur with Mr. Clinton's findings that the strange disbursement schedule for international population funds is detrimental to our family planning efforts overseas, the money can be released starting as early as March 1, rather than July 1.

Though it still will be squeezed out at the rate of 8 percent a month, at least the funds would be delayed five months rather than nine. Neither the federal budget nor the national deficit will be increased by the earlier release date. Congress has already agreed to spend the $385 million on family planning programs overseas. The question is when.

In a world where the population is climbing toward 5.9 billion and increasing by nearly 90 million annually, with 95 percent of that growth in the poorest countries, playing a legislative shell game with human lives is unworthy of a country that prides itself on its humanitarianism. Members of this Congress should take the opportunity to at least partially erase the shame perpetrated by the strident congressional henchmen of the antichoice movement in the last Congress.

* Werner Fornos is the president of the Population Institute in Washington.

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