One of President Bush's first official acts that raised a political outcry was his decision to end funding of overseas family-planning groups whose services include counseling on abortion.
Those groups, operating in poor countries, give guidance to women on a range of reproductive choices, from contraceptives to abortion, in order to give women more control over the number and timing of children.
Mr. Bush says he favors women having that kind of control - but doesn't want taxpayers to support abortion counseling. He thus reverses a Clinton-era policy and reinstates the policy of his Republican predecessors.
Of all international aid for family planning, the US supplies between 40 and 50 percent, or $425 million a year. So pulling the plug can have immediate effects in countries not ready to devote more of their own resources to birth-control services.
This US funding is one area where presidents still have some flexibility on abortion questions following the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court in 1973. But a critical distinction in the current debate is that Bush is not preventing overseas women from getting an abortion - which is in line with Roe - but rather he's not supporting them in doing so.
Abortion, for now, remains a constitutional right, but it's a right only in letting a woman be free of any government ban, and then only for the first two trimesters of pregnancy. The Roe decision doesn't dictate government funding of abortions or abortion counseling. In fact, federal law prevents funding of abortions through Medicaid and foreign aid.
Just the same, Bush's decision is problematic.
He should help make sure that poor women overseas won't lose access to the whole range of family-planning services - other than abortion counseling. A "compassionate conservative" president would slowly end US funding of birth-control groups that do offer abortion counseling while building up those groups that don't.
That way, women in poor countries wouldn't feel an immediate need to resort to abortion in the face of little or no birth-control advice.
Americans who don't want their taxes supporting any aspect of abortion, out of a heartfelt and often religious view, should be respected. But they, as well as Bush, should also recognize the need to help poor women make better choices than abortion.
Both sides in the abortion debate need to be less polarizing and find a compassionate common ground.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society