What's behind Bush's flip-flop on family planning?

Peter H. Kostmayer

July 26, 1991|By Peter H. Kostmayer

FOUR decades ago, George Bush learned a political lesson he refuses to forget.

The year was 1950, and the future president's father, Prescott Bush, was in a neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race in Connecticut. As the campaign entered its final days, disaster struck: Press reports disclosed that the senior Bush was a supporter of Planned Parenthood, causing an uproar among conservative voters. Prescott Bush lost the election by barely one-tenth of a percent of the vote. By all accounts, the birth-control issue cost him the election.

If nothing else, this story helps put in context George Bush's own remarkable reversal on family-planning issues nearly 40 years later. It is well-known that Congressman Bush started his political career as a leading proponent of birth control, serving as principal Republican author of the landmark Family Planning Act of 1970.

As Bush later wrote: "We took the lead in Congress in providing money and urging -- in fact, even requiring -- that in the United States family planning services be available for every woman . . ." As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bush played a leading role in promoting efforts to reduce world population growth. He argued that such efforts held the key to Third World development, writing in 1973: "Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership, may, in turn, determine whether we resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity and individual rights that face the world."

So what happened to George Bush? How did he come to embrace Ronald Reagan's "Mexico City policy," the international gag rule that forces private organizations overseas to withhold any service or information pertaining to abortion in exchange for U.S. family-planning funds? How can he maintain the Reagan-initiated boycott of the U.N. Population Fund, the principal family-planning organization in 141 developing nations?

The most plausible answer lies in the president's 1950 political baptism. That first-hand lesson is a constant reminder to Bush and can only reinforce the warnings of his political advisers to stay the Reagan course on population issues.

Ignored in this calculus, however, is the real human suffering that is the consequence of Bush's policy. Last year, more than 100,000 women in the developing world died as the result of botched abortions, according to the World Health Organization. Tens of thousands of those women would be alive today if they had access to contraceptives. Nonetheless, half of the women in the developing world still lack such access, due in part to the strings that we attach to U.S. assistance.

Many developing countries have fought long and hard to teach their people to trust in the idea that family planning can improve the quality of their lives. Under the Reagan policy, clinics receiving U.S. funds -- and operating in developing countries where abortion is legal -- must mislead the women who seek their advice about an unintended pregnancy. This policy prohibits these clinics from mentioning the option of abortion, even in situations where providing such information is mandated by a woman's health and sound medical practice.

The result of the "Mexico City" policy is that women are losing confidence in all of the services these U.S.-funded organizations now provide. In this way, the imposition of the policy is unraveling much more than medical ethics and the principles of informed consent pertaining to abortion. While the policy has an insidious and far-reaching effect in undermining the integrity of overseas family-planning programs, it is ironic that it has had no effect whatsoever in achieving its stated purpose -- reducing abortion. As many as 50 million abortions continue to occur each year worldwide, about half of them illegal.

Bush has also reversed his earlier course and cut off funding to the U.N. Population Fund. While the United States was previously the single largest contributor, all such assistance has been halted since 1986. This cutoff was implemented ostensibly to punish China over allegations that the Chinese government pressures women into having abortions.

The president refuses to hold the Chinese government responsible for its own actions but is able to win points with the "pro-life" movement by bashing a third party -- the U.N. fund. In practice, however, the 140 other countries of the developing world suffer the consequences: less family planning, more unwanted pregnancies and, inevitably, more abortions.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of George Bush, as he prepares for re-election, to face down both his political handlers and his own traumatic memories by reversing the "Mexico City" policy and restoring U.S. contributions to U.N. population efforts. For the sake of tens of thousands of women around the world, however, we can only hope he has the courage.

Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer, D-Pa., is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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