The Agency for International Development has revised the rules for organizations handling its population program overseas to excuse those offering so-called natural family-planning methods from advising clients that there are alternative ways to limit pregnancy. That in turn has led to congressional action to block funds until the original regulation is restored. So it should be.
Informed consent is important to the American commitment to free choice in offering government funds to assist with family planning and other population programs overseas.
But AID has bowed to carefully organized lobbying from a small group of agencies that, for religious or other reasons, opposes contraceptives. These agencies have not been required to offer contraceptives, just to be sure that persons coming to them knew of alternatives. But some of them argued that they could not in good conscience even talk about alternatives. So AID has changed the rules. And, coincidentally, AID has continued its policy of recent years in raising the share of overseas assistance for natural family planning. The funding has been increased from $400,000 in 1980 to $7 million in the current population budget of $240 million.
The Billings method of natural family planning holds greater promise for those wishing to avoid the use of contraceptives than any previous “natural” method. Careful use of its procedures enables a woman to know with precision when she is fertile. But, to be effective, the method requires substantial periods of abstinence from sexual intercourse, including the entire period of fertility. This has proved to be a serious problem for many couples, according to research by the World Health Organization. Statistically, therefore, the security of avoiding pregnancy through this method is less than with a number of contraceptives. Those are facts that should be shared with all persons seeking counsel on family planning. But now those offering natural family planning, but only those agencies, are exempt from mentioning the options.
The International Population Conference in Mexico City last year concluded that family-planning agencies “should include all medically approved and appropriate methods of family planning” so that clients can be assured “a voluntary and free choice in accordance with changing individual and cultural values.” Congress should hold AID tightly to those standards.