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Making It Harder on the Poorest

The poor of Peru, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Zambia and other countries have become unwitting victims of congressional critics of foreign aid and those who mistakenly equate contraception with abortion. The new Congress has a chance in coming weeks to demonstrate that opposition to the assistance is unfounded.

Last September, as part of the omnibus budget bill, Congress cut by one-third U.S. funding for family planning in countries too poor to provide these services, countries that often have the highest birthrates and the most unwanted pregnancies. Congress then compounded the effect of this cut--a reduction to $385 million from $547 million in the current fiscal year--by blocking the release of any 1997 funds until July. Even after that point, the bill required that the money be dribbled out at a rate of 8% per month. The United States is not the only source of such funding, but it is a significant one.

Opponents trotted out a tired excuse, saying they feared that U.S. funds would go toward abortion and forced sterilization. But since 1973, Congress has explicitly barred the use of family planning funds to promote or perform abortions abroad and has required that family planning assistance be voluntary. What will suffer as a result of the cutback are basic services such as contraceptive assistance, prenatal care and AIDS prevention.

The budget deal struck last fall offers one ray of hope: Congress agreed to consider releasing the reduced funds beginning in March instead of July if the Clinton administration could demonstrate that the delay was having a “negative effect” abroad. That was easy to do. In a report delivered to Congress last Friday, the White House offered evidence that the delay would cause programs around the world to suspend, defer or terminate family planning activities. The consequences would be “significant and could never be completely overcome,” said the report.

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Congress members can view an early release as consistent with U.S. foreign policy, which seeks to strengthen its allies’ economies, or as a matter of humanitarianism. Either way, they should vote promptly to disburse the funds.


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