Family Planning Showdown

July 23, 1995

Score one for opponents of legalized abortion. After waiting patiently on the sidelines while Speaker Newt Gingrich engineered rapid victories in the first 100 days of the new Congress, they are now cashing in their chits. Last week, by a narrow margin, the House Appropriations Committee voted to end a 26-year-old family planning program long supported by moderate Republicans.

Their victory, however, could come back to haunt them. For moderates on both sides of the abortion debate, family planning programs have long been regarded as the best antidote to abortions. The reasoning is simple: Help women prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions will become rare. But the right-wing attack on abortion now includes widely accepted forms of contraception. As Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston of Louisiana described it during the debate, ending the family planning program was a "pro-life" issue of greatest urgency. That kind of rhetoric may satisfy the Christian Coalition, but it's bound to scare mainstream Americans.

It also plays havoc with other government policies. Most welfare experts have been saying that more and better family planning services are essential to welfare reform -- and far more effective than punitive "family caps" designed to decrease the number of children born to welfare mothers.

Opponents of these services also conveniently forget that the check-ups women get when they seek reproductive health care screen them for cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and other serious conditions. It is often these services that help women in the early stages of pregnancy get the pre-natal care that can prevent the premature births which frequently take a huge toll in both human and financial terms.

The measure still faces a floor vote, and President Clinton has threatened a veto. Even so, it suggests that the far right regards not just abortion but the concept of reproductive choice in general as a fitting target. In the long run, we suspect that approach will only undermine their support among the American electorate.

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