Remove the Gag

Next year the world's population will pass 6 billion. That's 1 billion more than in 1987. And by 2050, well before the time those born today start retiring, the number of people walking this globe will reach 9.4 billion, according to a United Nations' estimate.

The adjustment to that population surge will not be easy.

Already, nearly half a billion people face water shortages. By 2025 thatnumber will explode to 2.8 billion, or 35 percent of the world's projected population then, notes a new report from The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

Regional conflicts over water are brewing and could turn violent as shortages grow, warns the report. Some countries in Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and South America are already bickering over access to rivers and inland seas.

That's only one of the hazards of rapid population growth. In many poor countries, it is a factor impeding improvements in living standards. Considering the risks, it seems reckless that Congress has been shrinking the funds the United States makes available for family planning.

The House is soon to take up a bill that would cap family planning aid at $385 million, some 30 percent lower than in fiscal 1995. It specifically forbids a contribution to the United Nations Population Fund, which has been getting $25 million a year for the past two years. The Senate bill, passed early this month, provides $435 million for family planning worldwide. It also leaves open the possibility of an American contribution to the UN Population Fund.

What's happened in the House is that the family planning money got tangled in the domestic anti-abortion fight. Any use of American money for abortion abroad is already banned. But some members of Congress want to go further. They attached a provision that foreign nongovernmental and multilateral organizations would lose US family planning funds if, with their own money, they engage in "sponsoring conferences and workshops on the alleged defects in abortion laws, as well as the drafting and distribution of materials in public statements calling attention to such defects."

Opponents call it a "gag rule."

We don't consider abortion a good thing. But new limits on family planning are, ironically, likely to increase abortions, not decrease them. For example, in Mexico abortion is illegal. Indeed, in Mexico City, the law mandates prison sentences of up to five years for women resorting to abortion. In Chile, women face a three-to five-year prison sentence.

But such laws don't stop desperate women from seeking abortions. In Mexico, the government estimates there are 200,000 to 800,000 a year; other studies say 500,000 to 1.5 million. Whatever the number, at least 1,500 Mexican women die each year from unsafe abortions.

In Mexico, Health Secretary Juan Ramon de la Fuente set off a fiery debate in mid-July by urging a national discussion on whether to legalize abortion. The Roman Catholic church threatened those favoring such a debate with excommunication.

One small nongovernment organization, the Information Group on Reproductive Choice, sponsored an ad calling for change in the abortion law. Under the "gag rule," both that group and any organizations associated with the 50 intellectuals who signed the ad would be barred from getting any US family planning funds.

In effect, the US would be trying to stop a debate abroad which has resounded at home for many years. Not a good idea.

Reasonable concern for the world's future demands that steps be taken to restrain the population explosion and thus relieve strains on the environment and minimize the flow of economic refugees.

To that end, Congress should remove the short-sighted and counterproductive gag rule.

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