Keep U.S. politics out of family planning

April 29, 2001|By Joyce Lombardi

VILLAGERS OFTEN asked me to get them birth control pills, but I always refused.

As a new Peace Corps health worker, I was still tiptoeing around the power structure of my village in southern Chad.

Getting involved in family planning seemed too risky. I had already received permission to give out condoms to protect against AIDS, and I didn't want to push the village elders too far. I didn't want them to accuse me of genocide or of turning their wives against them. And surely, I told myself, this was something Africans could take care of themselves.

Attempts by the Bush administration to impose its values on the rest of the world -- specifically, opposition to abortion -- makes family planning riskier still in places like Chad.

I realized some Africans could not take care of themselves when, one hot morning, a polite young man came to my hut and asked for $2. It seemed that his wife, Antoinette Jasangar, had been in labor since the previous night, but she was too weak and, despite the frantic work of two midwives, the baby had died in her womb.

She was outside in a pushcart, close to death, and he needed to get her to the hospital in the next town. Alarmed, I directed him to the village doctor. He thanked me and left.

I learned later that Mr. Jasangar, a Christian cotton farmer, did not have enough money to consult our corrupt local doctor, so he went to the apostolic mission. The pastor immediately drove him and his wife the 65 grueling, unpaved miles to a hospital run by Italian missionaries.

Unlike 600,000 women around the world who die in childbirth each year, Ms. Jasangar lived. She might not be so lucky, the Italian doctors warned her, if she got pregnant again. It was too soon after her previous stillborn. She knew that. Indeed, she hadn't wanted to get pregnant in the first place. It had just happened.

Ms. Jasangar was not alone. Both women and men in my village were weary of having too many kids too close together. "We need products that you Americans have," one woman told me. "We have nothing here."

She was right. There were expired, half-empty packs of birth-control pills in the next town. There were pharmacies in the distant cities whose shelves stood empty during the interminable government strikes. There was a smattering of private missionary clinics and nonprofit agencies in the region, but their expertise and supplies varied widely.

But the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) supplied up-to-date contraceptives to the major city hospital 65 miles away. A village woman could not make the journey -- it would be as improbable as flying from Dundalk to Boston for contraceptives -- but I could.

And so, with the enthusiastic blessings of the chiefs, our health team began providing contraceptives. With permission from their husbands -- a strict requirement -- women walked dusty mile upon mile, with babies on their backs and bundles on their heads, to the clinic. Finally, we had something that they, like an estimated 150 million others in the world, crave: the ability to space or limit births.

AID since has left Chad and so have I. But the needs of people like the Jasangars remain. Unfortunately, thanks to President Bush's resurrection of the Reagan-era "global gag rule," which denies AID money to any overseas organization that even mentions the word "abortion," those needs will be even harder to meet.

Mr. Bush did it, he said, "so American taxpayers won't have to pay for or promote abortions, here or abroad." In fact, not one taxpayer dollar has been spent on abortions overseas since 1973. Clearly, Mr. Bush's motives had nothing to do with actual abortions and everything to do with abortion politics.

Just as I had originally done, Mr. Bush has done what is politically comfortable, not what is right.

Hopefully, his move will be undone by legislation introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that establishes a simple standard: Restrictions that would be unconstitutional in the United States should not be imposed on overseas organizations -- not for any political price.

Joyce Lombardi, a free-lance writer living in Baltimore, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad from 1993 to 1995.

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