Help families choose

June 20, 1991|By New York Times

THIRTY YEARS ago, barely a tenth of the people in developing countries used some kind of birth control. Today more than half do -- in large part because of America's pioneering efforts to help people choose the size of their families. That choice is important not only for individuals but for countries, some of which are so devastated and deforested they cannot feed and house their own.

Seven years ago, at the 1984 World Population Conference in Mexico City, the United States trashed its position as a wise world leader on this issue. It announced it would try to end financial aid to any agency that so much as mentioned abortion. The Agency for International Development, aided and abetted by Congress, then withdrew financing from the U.N. Fund for Population Activities and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

That Congress can put such strictures on its financing is supported by a recent Supreme Court decision. Whether it should, however, is a matter of conscience -- and evidence is mounting that congressional consciences are troubled.

Last week, for instance, the House Appropriations Committee approved a foreign aid bill that would overturn the ban on American support for U.N. population planning programs. The bill would increase population planning funds by 20 percent (up to $300 million), but earmarks $20 million for the U.N. program. Furthermore, the full House now backs language authorizing the $20 million, and on a roll call vote narrowly supported reversing the Mexico City policy.

A comparable initiative is under way in the Senate, where proposed legislation contains a proposal from Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas to reverse the Mexico City policy. Last week the bill survived an assault by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by a vote of 13-6.

For years, Americans could be genuinely proud of this country's commitment to international family planning. Congress, if it continues down the present path, seems willing to restore the basis for that pride. And so, by overturning the Mexico City policy, could President Bush.

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