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US overseas abortion policy challenged

The leading family-planning organization in the United States is spearheading an assault against a Reagan administration policy that prohibits US funds for overseas private groups that use their own money for abortion-related activities. Using a lawsuit, congressional lobbying, and an aggressive advertising campaign, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) is leading the fight against the administration's ``Mexico City policy.''

The policy is so named because the Reagan administration unveiled it at the 1984 United Nations International Conference on Population, held in Mexico City. The US delegation to the meeting announced that the Agency for International Development (AID) would no longer assist private family-planning groups that in any way engage in abortion activities, however such activities are funded.

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The policy went beyond a 1973 US law prohibiting the use of American funds to support abortion abroad. It meant that US groups receiving AID funding had to end their assistance to overseas organizations that were using even non-US funds to perform abortions or conduct abortion counseling or advocacy.

This policy is ``illegal, unethical, and immoral, and could ultimately destroy all that has been achieved in the area of family planning in the developing world,'' according to PPFA president Faye Wattleton.

Officials of AID counter that the Mexico City policy is a legitimate part of the administration's effort to combat abortion, which President Reagan considers murder.

The policy has already led to the cutoff of AID funds for a European-based Planned Parenthood agency, and it could result in the loss of US funding for PPFA's overseas arm.

The cornerstone of PPFA's effort to overturn the Mexico City policy is a lawsuit filed in January against AID. The complaint says the US policy prevents patients from receiving complete and accurate medical information, and that it could lead to an increase in dangerous, illegal abortions in the developing world.

AID officials refused to comment on the suit. Lawyers representing Planned Parenthood said the administration filed a motion to dismiss the case on April 13.

To maintain their continued eligibility for US money, family planning groups, including those in the US, have to agree to abide by the Mexico City policy.

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An AID official defends the policy as a logical outgrowth of the strong antiabortion sentiment in the White House. ``It's certainly no secret that this administration has opposed abortion,'' she says, ``but we've maintained a policy which firmly supports family plannning.''

But Planned Parenthood's Ms. Wattleton argued in an April 14 speech that third-world women need to be informed not only about family-planning techniques, but about the abortion option in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. She said the death toll from illegal abortions could run to the hundreds of thousands per year, making it a leading cause of maternal death in the third world.

While some family-planning agencies have grudgingly accepted the Mexico City policy to keep their AID money flowing, the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation rejected the policy and lost its US support. In 1984 the group had received $15 million - about 25 percent of its total budget - from AID.

PPFA has also refused to endorse the Mexico City policy, and unless it wins its lawsuit in the next eight months, the organization's international branch, Family Planning International Assistance, faces a cutoff of its AID funds when its contract expires Dec. 31.

The branch provides family-planning services to an estimated 2.5 million to 4 million people through its support of 134 family-planning projects in 41 developing countries. AID is its primary source of funds, and a loss of that money would result in ``hundreds of thousands of more unwanted pregnancies, hundreds of thousands of more unwanted children, hundreds of thousands of horrible deaths from illegal abortions,'' Wattleton predicted.

``Pro-life'' groups argue that PPFA's talk of ``reproductive options'' conceals a hidden agenda. ``We don't think the US government should be subsidizing organizations that see their mission as making abortion on demand legal everywhere,'' said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

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