Aborting Birth Control

How family-planning advocates and anti-abortion activists conspired to cut family planning and increase abortions.

As a bill lifting an embargo on money for international family-planning programs passed the Senate Tuesday, Feb. 25, legislators congratulated themselves for their concern for poor women and children in developing countries. They should hang their heads instead. The bill, which passed the House earlier this month, authorizes far less than was appropriated two years ago, proving again that, on both sides of the debate, support for family planning takes second place to the controversy over abortion.

This year’s congressional debate might seem like progress since both sides in the abortion debate agreed on the fundamentals of family planning. Birth control can improve health for women and children worldwide. Many women die each year as the result of unsafe abortion, and women who have babies too close together have a sharply increased chance of dying from postpartum hemorrhage. Babies born too closely spaced or into large families are less likely to survive their early childhood. In a report to Congress, the Clinton administration estimated that with family planning, there will be 3 billion fewer people in the world in 2050 than without it.

Anti-abortion Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) concluded that everyone agrees about the importance of birth control for the well-being of developing countries. Even in the sharper House debate, there was no substantial dispute that overpopulation strains natural resources, contributing to environmental degradation, unemployment, and hunger. As Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said, “One mouth can eat, two mouths can share, four mouths will sometimes go hungry, and eight mouths starve.”

Even on the core issue of the relationship of birth control to abortion, an observer from the House gallery sometimes found it hard to tell who was on which side. In Hungary, Chile, South Korea, Russia, and elsewhere, abortion rates have dropped sharply with the increased availability of birth control. Since the illegal-abortion rate remains high in countries where abortion is outlawed, contraception may be the only effective way to bring abortion rates down.

“I think our aim in humanitarian efforts ought to be to … make the world abortion-free,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who has devoted much of his 16 years in Congress to leading anti-abortion forces. But he added, “Family planning certainly plays a part in that.”

Yet, despite this apparent consensus, Congress has cut birth-control funds deeply in the past two years. Abortion opponents insist on saddling family-planning appropriations with restrictions that deny funding to organizations that perform abortions or give abortion counseling. These organizations are already prohibited from spending U.S. money on abortion-related activities, but abortion foes argue that giving them money for birth control will let them divert other resources to providing abortions. Abortion-rights supporters argue that it would be inefficient to separate the two activities in countries where abortions are legal. When President Clinton refused to accept such restrictions in the 1996 and 1997 budgets, the House leadership retaliated by threatening to slash and delay family-planning appropriations. Rather than cave, the president took the cut.

The standoff cost international population programs more than a third of their 1995 funding levels. Furthermore, in both years, funds were embargoed until late in the fiscal year. Five leading family-planning organizations calculated that as a result of the cuts, 4 million more women will have unwanted pregnancies, of whom 1.6 million will have abortions. Eight thousand more women will die during pregnancy and childbirth (in part from unsafe abortions), and 134,000 babies will die.

Yet, despite Congress’ action to lift this year’s spending embargo, and the seeming alignment of both camps behind birth-control programs, these programs are likely to be seized hostage again in the abortion battle, for neither side seems prepared to compromise.

Would Smith ever accept an unconditional release of money for birth-control aid? The intensity of his floor remarks suggests not: “We should not compartmentalize our view and say, ‘If they do this with our money that is OK, and who gives a darn what else they do with the rest of their money.’ Abortion is child abuse! It kills babies!”

Smith’s decision this year to push a measure in the House that would spend as much birth-control money as the president asked might seem like progress. In one respect his bill was more generous than the alternative that passed the Senate, in that it would release the embargoed funds at a faster rate. But his opponents suspect that Smith’s was a cheap generosity, since he could count on the restrictions he demanded to draw a presidential veto. Smith’s press secretary, Ken Wolfe, boasts that by offering that bill, “We have called their bluff.”

For their part, family-planning organizations and the Clinton administration seem equally adamant. Susan Cohen of the Alan Guttmacher Institute explains that accepting abortion restrictions would stymie efforts to set up effective family-planning branches in the developing world. She says that in some countries where birth control has been unavailable, almost all indigenous groups they can work with have some abortion ties. Furthermore, even if complying with abortion restrictions were feasible, “You just can’t compromise on a principle.” Not even if it means accepting funding cuts that the Guttmacher Institute concluded would lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies, maternal deaths, and infant mortality. “It’s a very steep price,” Cohen concedes.

And this month’s votes are but a skirmish in the crusades. Smith promises, “[T]his will be the beginning of a long fight with the 105th Congress on this. … We will be back on the authorizing bills, we will be back on the appropriations bills when the fiscal 1998 and 1999 funds come up, and again we are going to continue this 1997 effort as well.”

Anti-abortion Congressman Tony Hall (D-Ohio) points to the deep cuts in international family planning and the angry battle going on around him and reflects, “In our effort to legislate around here, sometimes we become purists, and we hurt the people we are trying to help.” We do indeed.