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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Congress & Family Planning Funding

Air Date: Week of

Citing abortion controversy, the U.S. Congress has delayed the release of funds for international family planning. But a house vote coming up in February will be a sign of future relations between Congress and the White House on the financing of our population program. Kim Motylewski reports.


CURWOOD: For more than 30 years the United States has been supporting family planning services in scores of developing countries. One of the first votes expected in the new Congress will be on payments to continue these programs. Despite a US pledge in 1994 to achieve universal access to family planning early next century, budgets for population programs have been severely cut in the last 2 years. The vote, which Congress must take before the end of February, is too close to call right now, and it may be a bellwether of relations between the 105th Congress and the White House. It will also determine the US commitment to family planning programs worldwide. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski has our report.

MOTYLEWSKI: It's the second year in a row that international family planning organizations have been struggling with funding restrictions that seem devised to hobble their programs. Groups supported by the Agency for International Development, or AID, won't get a single dime of this year's $380 million budget until July, 9 months into the budget year. And then the money will come in a slow trickle instead of a lump sum.

POLLACK: We're trying to pledge thirst with drops of water instead of with a full glass of water.

MOTYLEWSKI: Amy Pollack is president of AVSC International, an agency which provides a wide range of reproductive health services in 50 countries. Everything from contraception to post-partum care to vasectomies. Dr. Pollack says her agency made it through last year by using up its cash reserves.

POLLACK: Which means that this year we really will experience the disastrous problem of having to cut back, by half, let's say, on the service deliveries that we would normally be involved with.

MOTYLEWSKI: For example, AVSC provides most of the reproductive health services in Nepal. Dr. Pollack estimates that if the funding delays continue, hundreds of pregnant women in that country are likely to become very sick from inadequate pre-natal care, unattended births, and unsafe abortions. It's the abortion issue that's caused these money problems to begin with. For years, it's been against the law for health care providers to use US tax dollars to cover the cost of abortions at home or abroad. Two years ago, a group of conservative lawmakers tried to reinstate an old policy that would go even further. It would cut off funding to family planning agencies if they provided abortions or abortion counseling, even if the money used for these services didn't come from the US government. The effort failed, but the conservative House still managed to cut funding for international family planning by a third. Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth is the Administration's point man on this issue. He says Congress has no business trying to set global health policy.

WIRTH: What's at stake here, however, is some people in the Congress, who are saying that the United States ought to be dictating to the rest of the world how the rest of the world uses their funds. And we just don't think that that's appropriate.

MOTYLEWSKI: But Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, who's leading the fight to reimpose the old abortion policy, says US tax dollars should not even indirectly support what he calls the international abortion industry.

SMITH: If they're killing babies with the other money that's freed up because the money we provide goes into the more legitimate things, and then it frees up their money to kill babies as a manner of birth control, then we have certainly put children at risk.

WIRTH: That it seems to me is an absolutely preposterous position to put us in.

MOTYLEWSKI: The State Department's Tim Wirth.

WIRTH: I think that they're very, you know, their logical extension of the argument that Congressman Smith is making is that any country where there's any kind of abortion going on should not receive any kind of engagement from the US at all.

MOTYLEWSKI: The Administration will try to drive this point home later this month when Congress votes whether to release international family planning dollars ahead of schedule. A decision to provide early funding won't fill the glass of thirsty family planning agencies, but it would safeguard the services for people who need them most, and it would signal a truce between the White House and Congress on the increasingly contentious issue of family planning. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski reporting.



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