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Debate Revives Over Funds For Global Family Planning

Abortion issue underlies sparring between Clinton and Congress

A battle is brewing between the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress over international population funds.

At stake is the ability of third-world family-planning organizations to keep their programs going, say supporters of the US program. They report that their efforts have slowed population growth and improved the lives of poor families in the developing world. The United States is a world leader in funding and research for international family planning.

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Opponents of US contributions argue that the real issue is abortion. According to the National Right to Life Committee, the US uses its population assistance money "to support its crusade to legalize and promote abortion on demand as a population control method" in developing countries.

US aid to family-planning programs has already been cut. A year ago, Congress reduced funds by 35 percent. Then it imposed spending restrictions that meant only 13 percent of the appropriated money was released during fiscal year 1996.

Now the issue is back on the table. By the end of this week, President Clinton must report whether the delayed funding has hurt US international family-planning programs. If he finds that it has, as expected, Congress must vote by the end of February on whether to allow family-planning money to flow again beginning March 1, instead of July 1, as required by the fiscal 1997 appropriations bill.

The actual dispute - the timing of the resumption of monthly installments - may seem minor, but both sides see larger issues at play. International family-planning groups say that, to date, they have managed to husband their resources in an effort to minimize the effects of spotty funding. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which distributes US population funds to nonprofit family-planning groups, has used "prior-year funds" and shifted resources from other programs to fill gaps.

If new funds are not released until July, "urgent funding needs of a number of programs would not be met, causing disruption of family-planning service delivery and ... supporting activities in at least 15 countries," according to USAID. Family-planning groups argue that greater funding will reduce the number of abortions.

But if Congress votes to release the money in March, abortion opponents say, then more money will be available for groups to support abortion. "Calling it simply a 'family-planning vote' would be taking it out of context," says Maggie Winn, staff member for the House's pro-life caucus.

Family-planning groups say they follow the letter of the law with regard to the abortion issue: No US money goes for abortion services or advocacy. According to USAID, regular audits by national accounting firms ensure that this is so.

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The National Right to Life Committee claims otherwise, saying the International Planned Parenthood Federation - which gets US funds - openly advocates the weakening of anti-abortion laws in developing countries.

Family-planning groups resent the link of funds to the abortion issue. "International family planning is being held hostage to the domestic abortion debate," says Victoria Markell of Population Action International in Washington.

Ms. Markell hopes that the Clinton administration and congressional allies can ensure a "clean vote" on the release of the money, a vote that is not distorted by the rancorous abortion debate. She notes that last year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who opposes abortion, voted in favor of money for domestic family planning.

This week the Rockefeller Foundation issued a report saying that the US "retreat" from international family planning had denied "millions of couples the freedom to decide when to have children and how many to have." US leadership in international family planning has been instrumental in slowing population growth, the report notes. The United Nations reports that global population in 2050 will be lower by about half a billion people than earlier projections.

Why should Americans care about this debate? Global population has a direct impact on the US. Steven Sinding at the Rockefeller Foundation notes that overpopulation contributes to political instability, global warming, and resource depletion. High population growth in the third world can also affect the US labor market. A large labor pool overseas depresses wages, which contributes to the flight of jobs from the US.

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