Family planning at heart of political debate

By Lisa Kaeser, JD

The Alan Guttmacher Institute

Washington, DC

The debate between President Clinton and Congress about overseas family planning programs frequently has been in the news, but just as often it has been mischaracterized as merely a standoff about abortion. By blurring the impact of new prohibitions on aid to foreign family planning programs, some congressmen have succeeded in advancing an agenda that reaches beyond abortion to undercutting the provision of family planning services.

Largely due to the efforts of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), legislation reauthorizing the activities and programs administered by the U.S. State Depart ment has passed congressional muster with two provisions that prohibit most abortion-related activities - even if privately funded and in countries where abortion is legal - in developing countries as a condition for the receipt of U.S. funding for family planning.

No government funds

The first provision states that the U.S. government cannot, directly or indirectly, fund any nongovernmental organization that performs abortions with its own funds, even where legal (except in cases of endangerment to the life of the woman, forcible rape, or incest). The bill would permit the president to waive this provision, but only if funding for family planning, already at the lowest level in many years, is cut by $44 million.

The second provision, which cannot be waived, could have even more serious implications for U.S. programs in the future. It would prohibit U.S. funding of any group that engages in any "activity or effort to alter the laws or government policies" concerning abortion, even if the group does not perform abortions itself. Far beyond a prohibition against lobbying on abortion, the provision also would prohibit conferences, workshops, distribution of materials, and any other activities that might call a countrycurrent policy on abortion into question.

For example, if the provision becomes law, an organization issuing a report on a country's health care services mentioning that illegal abortions are unsafe could lose its funding. At a congressional hearing earlier this spring, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it a "gag rule," stating that it "would punish organizations for engaging in the democratic process in foreign countries and for engaging in legal activities that would be protected by the First Amendment if carried out in the U.S." Others have dubbed the provision a "rank intervention" in other countries' business.

'Mexico City' revisited

For his part, President Clinton is threatening to veto the measure if those policies are included. He is holding steadfast in insisting that such a policy would not only be anti-family planning, but anti-democratic. In doing so, he has placed two of his administration's chief foreign policy priorities at risk: paying arrears in United Nations dues and funding for the troubled International Monetary Fund.

Rep. Smith has publicly questioned whether the Clinton administration's opposition to his anti-abortion restrictions is worth holding up these two programs. On the other hand, the administration points out that holding U.S. foreign policy hostage to an obvious anti-abortion, anti-family planning agenda may result in more, not fewer, unintended pregnancies and abortions.

The so-called "Mexico City policy" (of which the Smith restrictions are an extension) was first promulgated by the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s. A few years thereafter, President Reagan and then President Bush issued the domestic version of the rule," which prevented domestic family planning providers receiving Title X funding from mentioning abortion as a legal option for their clients who were facing unintended pregnancies.

The opposition to federally funded family planning programs has become better organized and, indeed, a politically credible force to be reckoned with. Attempts to place restrictions around the margins of the programs have given way to efforts to eliminate the programs - both domestic and international - outright. Thus, in recent years, rather than focusing on much-needed increases in funding for family planning services, much less positive policy changes, supporters of family planning have been forced to do their utmost to even tread water.

Although public opinion polls continue to consistently demonstrate widespread, mainstream support for publicly funded family planning, that support is somehow not being translated to the political frontlines.