Congress has corrected a serious policy error of the Agency for International Development on overseas population-control programs. The victory is encouraging at a time of major defeats of important population programs.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) deserves the credit for amending the appropriation legislation so that AID population program funds abroad will be limited to organizations that "offer, either directly or through referral to or information about, access to a broad range of family-planning methods."
The effect of DeConcini's amendment will be to put an end to a rule adopted last summer, under pressure from Vice President George Bush and an organization in Louisiana called Family of the Americas, that excused organizations providing natural family-planning programs from advising clients of alternative methods. That rule change last summer broke a longstanding AID policy upholding the concept of informed consent in the population program.
DeConcini, a strong foe of abortion and a Roman Catholic, found himself the object of intense lobbying, apparently organized largely by Family of the Americas but including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Committee headed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Among those calling was Mother Theresa, who reportedly thought that the DeConcini amendment would require natural family-planning clinics to provide contraceptives. It does not.
The intervention of the Catholic bishops seems to us an unwelcome effort to impose their own ideas of appropriate birth control through U.S. government funds on foreign recipients. AID has expanded significantly its funding of natural family planning. That is acceptable so long as the funding does not become, in effect, a form of advocacy that denies clients the knowledge on which to make an informed choice. Natural family planning has been refined as a relatively effective means of avoiding pregnancy, but it requires extended periods of sexual abstinence. Many couples find the requirements too demanding, with pregnancy resulting from their failure to maintain the required abstinence. This means that in practice there is a failure record higher than with several forms of contraception.
DeConcini argued persuasively that the population program's priority is to provide effective birth-control help to those who want it, pointing out that there is no more effective way to reduce the use of abortions than to eliminate unwanted pregnancies.
The negotiations that produced congressional agreement on DeConcini's amendment included some negative actions. There was a reduction in the overall funding of overseas population programs--with $250 million voted for the current year, compared with $290 million last year. That may be cut substantially more in the adjustments now required by the controversial budget-balancing bill voted by Congress. Furthermore, Congress left standing the regulations and amendments that will cut off all U.S. funding for two of the most effective global population programs--those of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.
These reductions come at a moment of desperate need for action to help curtail the population growth that in many nations is raising the risk of famine and is eroding initial advances to develop their impoverished economies.