Battle over foreign aid for family planning

David R. Francis Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A sort of annual ritual involving international family-planning aid and the abortion issue has begun between the White House and Congress.

It involves a controversial effort to "gag" the discussion of abortion in foreign countries, and it makes some Republican members skittish.

"The Republican leadership would like to keep this very quiet," says Heather Boonstra, an analyst with The Alan Guttmacher Institute in Washington.

Many Republicans are already worried that the recent Supreme Court decision narrowly knocking down a state law banning "partial-birth abortions" will awaken women voters' concerns over their constitutional right to have an abortion. The Republicans see a danger abortion will become a major issue in the US presidential-election campaign. They would as soon see the family-planning tiff disappear.

Here's how it is shaping up.

In his budget for 2001, President Clinton proposed boosting spending on international family-planning programs by $156 million above the $385 million Congress appropriated for this fiscal year. That would put the level at the all-time high of $541.6 million voted for fiscal 1995.

As usual since Republicans won a majority in the House, the Appropriations Committee voted just $385 million. Like last year, the bill includes what its opponents call the "Global Gag Rule."

This provision cuts funding by $12.5 million if American aid is given to foreign nongovernmental organizations that use non-US funds to either provide abortion services or advocate for or against abortion rights in their own countries.

Last year, the White House negotiated a deal with the Republicans that included the gag rule because funding to cover the $900 million US arrears to the United Nations was held hostage.

"It was a high-stakes process," says Ms. Boonstra. The arrears was at least partly covered - "at the cost of women overseas and their family planning."

Beside the $12.5 million cut, the rule says no more than $15 million can go to these foreign groups engaged in the abortion controversy. The State Department has since certified that this ceiling hasn't been reached.

(The law has long forbidden US aid to be used for abortions. But advocates of the "gag" rule point out that money is fungible - that if foreign aid is available, more domestic funds can be used for abortions or its advocacy.)

A Democrat, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, proposed June 27 an amendment to the House bill saying that, as she puts it, "we can't restrict international organizations in a way that would be unconstitutional here."

By limiting free speech, she charged, the "gag rule" undermines a key US foreign policy of promoting democracy abroad.

The Lowey measure lost 34 to 26, largely along partisan lines.

The full House could take up the $13 billion foreign-aid bill, which includes family-planning aid, later this week.

Then the issue will move to the Senate. The bill there includes the Lowey language and ups the money to $425 million.

The White House has not yet said whether it will veto a bill that includes the "gag rule." This year, the Republicans won't have the UN money as a bargaining tool. But population groups fear that the rule could be attached to other legislation Clinton wants.

Several groups advocating more money for family-planning aid and opposed to the rider have estimated that if Clinton got the full $541 million he seeks, it would mean the following:

Some 11.7 million couples in developing nations would get access to and use modern methods of contraception. As a result, 4.3 million women would not have unintended pregnancies. There would be 1.5 million fewer unintended births, 2.2 million fewer abortions, and 500,000 fewer miscarriages each year. Further, there would be 8,000 fewer deaths from unsafe abortions.

In effect, the researchers find, the House bill adds to the number of abortions and related deaths in the world.

One key architect of that bill with its rider is Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey. He is a leader of a keenly antiabortion group of perhaps 40 conservative Republicans. With only a slim majority in the House, the Republicans depend on the support of this group to pass legislation.

"The Republican leadership in the House is really in his pocket," says a Democratic staffer in the House. "He can threaten a vote en masse against what the Republican leadership wants."

Mr. Smith is adamantly anti-abortion, so much so that he has called the birth-control pill a "baby pesticide," says Sally Ethelson, a spokeswoman for Population Action International.

Smith is "radically out of step with American opinion," says the Democratic staffer.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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