Soon Congress will vote on whether to release already appropriated family planning funds for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) - or to hold these funds until July. While this might appear to be a simple bureaucratic decision, it will have a profound impact on the lives and health of tens of thousands of poor families around the globe.
President Clinton has been unequivocal in asking Congress to release the funds: "It is my determination that a delay will cause serious, irreversible and avoidable harm. In the balance are the lives and well-being of many thousands of women and children and America's credibility as the leader in family planning programs around the world." The president's report to Congress on delayed funding indicated it would result in unintended pregnancies, deaths of mothers and children, and increased abortions.
As the administrator of USAID, I welcome the debate in Congress. The issue is simple: Will USAID and its nongovernmental partners be allowed to efficiently manage taxpayers' resources or not?
But during this debate we are going to hear a lot about abortions - and that troubles me. I know how personal and emotional the abortion debate can quickly become. I was raised in a religion and in a family that opposed abortion.
I became an advocate of the pro-choice position only over time. I, like most people involved on either side of the debate, want to see as few abortions as possible. In the end, I came down on the side of individuals making their own moral choices. I firmly believe that rich and poor women everywhere should have access to sound advice and safe medical procedures.
But neither my beliefs nor those who disagree with them are at issue in this vote. As a government, we have stated explicitly that abortion should not be a method of international family planning. Organizations that carry out our program cannot use US government resources to perform abortions. We do not use the influence of our government to overturn the antiabortion laws of other nations. We respect our own Constitution and the right of American women to choose, but we also respect the right of other sovereign democracies to decide their own positions.
Preventing abortion's biggest cause
USAID's family planning programs are voluntary. They allow poor families the option of spacing and limiting the size of their families. When combined with programs to educate girls and women, to bring them into the mainstream of their local economy, and to provide them with adequate health care, family planning gives women a sense of dignity and strengthens the family. Family planning also helps prevent unwanted pregnancies, the biggest cause of abortion. We know this intuitively - after all, it is unintended pregnancies, not desired ones, that drive desperate women to take desperate actions. And we know it empirically: Data from countries as socially and religiously diverse as Hungary, Russia, Mexico, and even our own United States show clearly that increases in contraception cause decreases in abortions.
In a report released just last week, the Rockefeller Foundation calls family planning programs one of the greatest success stories of US development assistance. The report notes that (a) these programs have helped bring family size down from six children to three children; (b) smaller family size has meant healthier, better cared for, more economically productive families; (c) we have all benefited from a world population that is 500 million less than it would have been without this assistance; and (d) the United States is advancing its most human and compassionate values by demonstrating, in such a concrete way, our concern for the health and well-being of families in the developing world.
Trying to 'meter' spending on aid
And yet, as the Rockefeller report also highlights, our 10-year history of nonpartisan, constructive engagement in family planning, which has bettered the lives of millions around the world, is under attack as never before.
Congress decided last year to reduce the president's request for family planning from $435 million to $385 million. Opponents added a requirement that we "meter" the expenditure of this amount, allowing only $23 million to be spent each month starting in July.
These restrictions were clearly put in place with no intent other than to obstruct the proper functioning of the family planning program. Whatever your view on family planning, metering is no way to run a railroad; nor is appropriating money to an agency and then forbidding the agency to spend it. In fact, these additional bureaucratic restrictions cost US taxpayers at least an additional million dollars in administrative expenses to run the program last year. What we are seeing is the slow strangling of a family planning program that has done tremendous good for the world's neediest people.
I know that, during this debate on the floors of the House and Senate, we will hear about abortion in the most intemperate of terms. Amidst the confusion, we should not lose sight of the fact that family planning is all about giving families what they need to improve their lives. Our family planning programs work to ensure that women and men have the information to make informed decisions about the size of their families, and the contraceptives and services to prevent unintended pregnancies. Our maternal health programs work to provide prenatal care and nutrition, to develop effective and low-cost ways to identify high-risk pregnancies, and to establish low-tech - but lifesaving - referrals for women in danger from complications of their pregnancies.
No diversionary tactics should keep us from efforts to help a generation of children to grow up and be educated in healthier, safer, and more productive environments.
I urge Congress to release vitally needed funds for family planning.
* J. Brian Atwood is the administrator of the US Agency for International Development