Abortion policy in a time of AIDS

Health: A South African youth center teaches sex education, but a U.S. ban on funds for groups that support abortions endangers its success.

February 28, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ORANGE FARM, South Africa - The young boys in oversized rubber boots kick up their heels, stomp their feet and slap the sides of their boots like drums. They move faster and faster - kicking, stomping and slapping - until the rhythm sounds like a locomotive picking up speed.

Then they start singing. Not about the hardships of mining - as is the tradition for gumboot dancers in South Africa - but about the dangers of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.

At the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa's youth center in this black township outside Johannesburg, the line between sex education and recreation is often blurred. Backed in part by U.S. government funds, the center offers pastimes such as dancing, basketball and computers to restless township youths with few recreation options. Young people also can pick up free condoms, speak with sex education counselors, take pregnancy tests and learn about AIDS.

And by all accounts, the strategy is working. At Orange Farm, more than 1,500 young people visit the center each month.

"It doesn't create the stigma of being in a clinic," says Motsomi Aubrey Senne, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of South Africa. "You can be here to play and then sneak into a room to see a counselor. Once they are here, we have a captured audience."

Senne helped design the first center in 1992, and now with 22 nationwide, he dreams of providing sexual education to 1 million young South Africans.

But Senne's ambitious plans have been replaced by fears of severe budget cuts. When President Bush announced a ban last month on aid to international organizations that perform or promote abortions, it signaled the end of U.S. funding to Planned Parenthood of South Africa, Senne says.

Although the association does not perform abortions, it does offer information and counseling on the procedures - and thus can expect to lose about $650,000 it receives directly and indirectly from the United States, about one-quarter of its annual budget.

Bush's order reinstates a ban in effect under President Ronald Reagan but repealed by Clinton in 1993. Using federal funds for abortion has been forbidden since 1973. Bush's ban, however, goes further by stating that no U.S. money can go to organizations that use even non-U.S. funds to perform, lobby to legalize, or promote abortions. Ban proponents say that it ensures that overseas family planning organizations will not use U.S. tax dollars to free other funds for abortion-related activities.

About 450 overseas family planning organizations are expected to share a pot of $425 million in U.S. aid this year earmarked for family planning. Now they are faced with a choice: Either stop promoting or advocating abortion or lose that money. The Bush administration says most such organizations already comply with the order - or expects that they will comply in the face of budget shortfalls. But a few, like Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa, will not.`They have the power to pull away the carpet," says Senne. "No self-respecting NGO [nongovernment organization] that I know will bow down to that pressure."

He said changing his association's policy toward abortion is not an option.

"We give people choices, and one of those choices is abortion," he says. "There are those who don't want to be pregnant, and young people still take risks."

In Orange Grove, a township of rutted dirt roads and dilapidated tin-roofed shacks, nearly half of the 400,000 residents are jobless and the future doesn't look much brighter for many youths. It is a place where sex fills the void in teen-agers' lives, youth center counselors say.

The youth center, a two-story building painted purple, pokes above other township structures. One afternoon last week, the center was abuzz with activity. About a dozen children played tag in the lobby below a bin of condoms. Young mothers trudged upstairs to counseling sessions. Inside a meeting room, a motivational speaker held a session for a group of 20 young boys.

"For every choice in life there is a consequence," he told them. "My success is my choice in life. You can choose to be successful or you can choose to fail."

Itumeleng Mabato, an 18-year-old peer counselor at the youth center, says that in her meetings with township teens she spends much of her time dispelling myths about sex. Many young people, for instance, believe that drinking Coca-Cola after sex will protect them from AIDS. Or that having sex just once is not enough to become pregnant.

Taking away funding from Planned Parenthood will only allow such misinformation to spread, Senne says.

Family planning organizations say that cutting off U.S. funding may result in an increase in unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and the spread of AIDS as organizations in developing nations lose money for contraceptives, sex education and counseling.

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