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Anti-Abortion Policy Is Targeted

Legislation: A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to overturn Bush's ban on giving funds to international agencies that are involved in abortion-related activity.

February 16, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers launched a bid Thursday to overturn President Bush's ban on giving federal funds to international family planning groups that use other funds to pay for abortion-related activity.

Backing the effort are several international health organizations concerned that the ban will force them to halt efforts encouraging their countries to liberalize abortion laws to reduce the number of women who die from illegal abortions.

The legislation to overturn Bush's ban has a good chance of passing in the Senate, which historically has been more supportive of family planning and abortion rights. Its prospects are more uncertain in the House, where the Republican majority could use parliamentary procedures to thwart it.

The ban, one of Bush's first acts as president, prohibited any overseas organization that gets U.S. aid for family planning from using funds received from other sources for abortion counseling, abortion referrals, performing abortions or lobbying to liberalize abortion laws.

The bill would overturn the ban by prohibiting the government from dictating how foreign organizations use money received from other sources. At stake are the criteria these groups must meet in order to qualify for a grant from a pot of $425 million. Among other requirements, the aid recipients must agree in writing not to lobby to change abortion laws.

Direct use of U.S. money for abortion-related activities by international organizations has been blocked since 1973.

The fight over the more sweeping ban has been going on for more than 15 years. President Reagan first instituted it in 1984. It was continued by President George Bush. However, one of President Clinton's first acts upon his inauguration in 1993 was to eliminate the ban by executive order.

President George W. Bush, in turn, made it one of his first acts to reinstate it.

Opponents of legal abortion believe there should be a line between making contraceptives available and helping women terminate pregnancies when contraception has failed. And they strongly oppose giving U.S. dollars to organizations that lobby to liberalize abortion laws.

"It is a question of what type of organization the U.S. government ought to be supporting," said Douglas Johnson, an official of the National Right to Life Committee, which opposes abortion rights.

"Clearly, Congress did not contemplate [that aid for international family planning groups] was going to be a program to help organizations legalize abortion in South America or Africa or in the Muslim world. It was created to promote voluntary contraception and sterilization, not abortion," Johnson said.

But family planning advocates counter that, in parts of the underdeveloped world where contraceptives are scarce, women often end up with unplanned pregnancies and then turn to public health organizations for counseling, for referrals to safe abortion providers and for abortions. Organizations offering any of these services, even in countries where abortion is legal, could not receive funding under the Bush ban.

"Too often, women in developing nations do not have access to the contraceptive or family planning services they need because contraceptives are expensive, supplies are erratic and services are difficult to obtain," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

But because groups trying to improve such access to contraception also are likely to provide abortion-related services, Snowe said, the effect of the ban Bush reimposed is "not to support these organizations--a policy that is confounding to me, because these very organizations reduce the number of abortions through their services."

Among the groups that would be affected are the Center for Research on Environmental Health and Population Activities in Nepal, a research group that has been studying maternal morbidity and mortality there.

Anand Tamang, the center's director, traveled to Washington to press the case for overturning the ban. He said that, even though abortion is illegal in Nepal and women are routinely jailed for having one, illegal abortions are frequent. The result is that over half of all maternal deaths in Nepal are due to botched abortions, according to Nepalese Health Ministry estimates.

Tamang said the center's studies have contributed to the country's consideration of liberalizing its abortion laws.

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