RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Family Planning Funds in Jeopardy

Frigid February has a reputation for romance, with Valentine's Day snuggled in the middle. Don't want to chill the moment, but the day after Valentine's -- February 15 -- is the "funding release date" for the US foreign assistance bill which includes our nation's donation to family planning organizations in other countries. This money goes to pay for education, distribute condoms, and place professionals in clinics.

The money was approved by Congress, but the late release date means that Bush has veto power. This will be Bush's first chance to take a stand to help poor families and poor women internationally.

In 2000, Clinton guaranteed $425 million for population assistance, $116 million less than he requested. His request for $541 million would have brought the funding up to the 1995 level. In jockeying over this request, Clinton was able to make Congress release some back payments of US dues to the UN.

In exchange for the back payments, Republicans wanted him to institute a "gag rule" insuring that US funds wouldn't be used for abortions. The first gag rule was instituted in 1984 by Ronald Reagan as an executive order. It stayed in place through the elder Bush's term, and was removed by Clinton in his first week in office. When Clinton forced the International Population Assistance bill through without the gag rule, Democrats hailed it "a victory for women around the world."

Everyone agrees that there's a top limit for human population numbers, but we can't agree on the top human population number, or what the limiting factors will be. We're on the brink of being a world where the planet supports only humans living in an industrial culture, those creatures we raise, and those that live off us. Elephants, whales, polar bears, and coral reefs are not part of the plan.

For every natural resource that runs out, we find a way to cope. We blow the tops off mountains to find coal, and we make gasoline from corn. When we find out that mountains were necessary to keep water clean, or ethanol carries an unexpected pollutant, we punt with another invention.

Our industrial cleverness is practically without limit, so we believe that our world is without limit. Still, we agree that whether we're three billion or six billion or ten billion, each human should have the right to clean air, water, and pure food. Do you have all three? Well, two out of three ain't bad.

With six billion citizens, the world fails to deliver clean air, water or food to half of us. There are solid reasons to say "yes" for our government to provide family planning funds to all the planet's people. Let's start with the easy yesses.

1. Extremely poor women ought to be able to choose birth control. The Population Institute ( estimates that "more than 150 million women in developing countries would like to delay or cease childbearing, but do not have access to modern methods of contraception." Birth control products might help these women pursue an education, or give better care to children they already have.

2. People with compromised health ought to be able to choose whether to have families. It's a no-brainer: Don't bring new infected people to places where epidemics rage, further damaging the child-bearers, and straining the care givers.

According to the Jan. 12 Wall Street Journal, Tanzania and its neighbors south of the Sahara have experienced nearly 80% of the AIDS deaths in the world. Where they get sex education, like in the district of Magu bordering Lake Victoria, where the Dutch government has funded new initiatives, pregnancies and HIV/Aids infections fall.

The Dutch initiative has led to villages passing new laws. There's a ban on a harvest rite which involves men chasing unmarried women into the bush and raping them. And school children have been barred from pornographic shows. Schools, it turns out, were particularly dangerous places for girls.

The English and Dutch have each given more than their share to the United Nations Population Fund, the world's largest supplier of contraceptives to developing countries. The money has helped. The Fund reports that 60% of families in developing countries use family planning, up from 10% in 1960.

3. Teenagers ought to be able to choose birth control if they're going to be sexually active. In many third-world countries, 20% of live births is to a girl between 15 and 19 years old. In some American places, the rate is worse. To add insult to injury, one study showed that the younger the girl, the older the father. Teenage girls ought to be taught how to avoid incest and rape. Teenage girls, and teenage boys who drop out to support their kids, ought to be able to stay in school.

While Americans commit ever-increasing amounts to defense and weird science, we have chosen to reduce the amount of family planning funding for poor countries every year. We say it's because we don't want to fund abortions.

Nobody -- Democrat or Republican -- wants abortions. Abortions result when family planning fails. But, politicians are especially good at turning emotional non-issues into emotional issues. Abortion rather than family planning has grabbed the public's attention. Big money has gone into abortion-fighting, complete with billboards of pink, healthy babies reminding us that "it's a child, not a choice."

In truth, our reduction of family planning funds has condemned increasing numbers of poor children to lives in homes headed by impoverished women, with no chance for betterment.

For middle-class American couples, choosing whether or not to have children is a personal decision, and a leap of faith that the world will be good for the next generation. Parents hope for a safe place for their kids -- clean resources, clean politics, opportunities. In America, we also expect the right to internet access, full closets, warm homes, and large seats on airplanes, and we like to believe that everyone can have these things if they work hard. We leave giant footprints on the planet, but the child-or-no child decision is more about emotion than statistics about the planet's health.

On the heels of Valentine's Day comes Mother's Day and Father's Day. In some neighborhoods, there's even a Children's Day. Hallmark ought to add a day for non-parents, celebrating the choice they've made.

One non-parenting couple I know wants to pursue high-powered careers. Both are educated people, highly motivated to succeed, and willing to travel and work long hours, and they have favorite, isolated vacation spots for retreats -- off-season.

Another couple has chosen to pursue a sustainable lifestyle, living in a house they've built from materials on their farm, raising most of what they need and pursuing a personal spirituality. Materialism isn't part of their plan. "We don't want to make children conform to the lives we've chosen," they told me.

I know a social worker married to a teacher, both devoting their lives to children, but choosing not to parent. They say they want to save their energy. Do I need to add that all three of these couples are healthy heterosexuals that know how lucky they are?

Americans have lots of choices. Families in less-affluent places don't. The president must allow -- without a gag rule -- the US foreign assistance bill which immediately forwards our nation's donation to family planning organizations in other countries.

Call him at 202-456-1414, and call your elected representatives, and let them know that international family planning money should be released without the gag rule.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: Contact your representatives through the US Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121, or write c/o US Senate, Washington DC 20510; or US House, Washington DC 20515. Write the President c/o White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC 20500. As this went to press, Bush made one of the first official acts of his presidency the stopping of US aid to international groups that so much as counsel abortions.

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