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Endangered: U.S. Aid for Family Planning Overseas

From an article written by Wendy R. Turnbull as published in Issues in Brief, a publication of the Alan Guttmacher Institute and updated in an interview with Susan A. Cohen, Senior Public Policy Associate at AGI

Urgent action is needed if U.S. aid for international family planning programs is to be continued. The new Congress is required to vote by February 28 on whether or not slashing funding for international family planning by one-third is good policy. The last Congress drastically cut and punished the international family planning program, in the name of opposition to abortion. Ironically, a consortium of research groups has estimated that the actions of the 104th Congress can be expected to result in 1.6 million additional abortions around the world.

Under the terms of the law passed at the end of the last session, the president will submit a report to Congress by February 1, specifying how harmful the cuts are in terms of the functioning of the international family planning program and measured in women's health and lives. If Congress votes to approve the president's finding, the funding for the program will be released as of March 1, otherwise, the funds will be withheld until July 1, a full nine months into the fiscal year, risking, if not destroying the entire infrastructure of the international program.

Contact your senators and representatives and urge them to support international family planning and women by voting to approve the presidential finding.

The 1994 congressional elections ushered into the House of Representatives a formidable bloc of anti-abortion conservatives. Facing an electorate that is basically pro-choice, however, they had few potential targets within their reach. Foreign assistance became an easy mark, and the restoration of the so-called Mexico City policy became a rallying cry.

The Mexico City policy was first enunciated by the Reagan administration at the 1984 United Nations' population conference in that city; it was revoked by President Clinton nearly 10 years later. The policy deemed population growth a "neutral" phenomenon; to the extent it could be considered a problem, it would be solved by "market forces." The policy also declared that, henceforth, the United States would no longer "promote" abortion worldwide - something that, in fact, had been prohibited by law since 1973. The latter goal would be achieved by imposing strict new conditions on indigenous, private organizations abroad - conditions that could not be imposed on similar U.S.-based institutions. Under the Mexico City policy, these overseas organizations would be disqualified from receiving U.S. family planning aid if - with their own funds and in accordance with the laws of their own countries - they provided any abortion-related information or services.

The House endorsed the reimposition of the Mexico city restrictions on several occasions in 1995 but was rebuffed by the Senate each time. This resulted in a lengthy showdown between the two chambers. As a consequence, a second - but equally devastating - assault by family planning opponents began to unfold to decimate the program's funding.

In January 1996, almost four months into the new fiscal year and under immense pressure to head off a third government-wide shutdown, both the Senate and the White House were forced to accept a self-described "compromise" proffered by the House leadership. As the price for dropping the Mexico City language, family planning would be stripped of much of its funding. First, an overall funding cut of 35 percent - a much deeper cut than that sustained by development assistance generally - was imposed. Second, to punish family planning even further, an unprecedented and complex set of funding rules would be imposed. No funds would be made available until July 1 - a full nine months into the fiscal year - and, perhaps most severe of all, the funds, once released, could only be doled out in monthly installments over the next 15 months.

The fiscal 1997 budget process brought more of the same funding conditions. However, another test of the issue was built into the equation: a congressional vote on a presidential "finding" as to the impact of the funding limitations on the international planning program.

Congress doggedly attacked U.S. participation in the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In the wake of their groundbreaking accords calling for greater political and financial attention to population and development issues, the U.S. is failing to fulfill its commitments. Contributing "our fair share" to alleviate poverty and promote better health among developing societies is a strongly held American value, one that has driven U.S. international assistance for many decades. It must remain so, if our efforts are to succeed in improving the lives of women.

Excerpted from WOMANSWORD, Vol. 1, Issue 12, January, 1997.




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