Washington, DC -- In a recent Time article, Michael Kinsley discussed the danger facing the reactionary wing of the Republican party; namely, that on issue after issue, whether it's the environment or gay rights, they are "on the wrong side of history." Perhaps no where is this truer than on federal support -- or lack thereof -- for family planning, demonstrably the single most effective way to reduce the number of abortions, and perhaps the only politically viable one. Instead of doing everything they could to ensure that women who wanted to avoid pregnancies could, the reactionaries in the Bush administration and in Congress have desperately tried to cripple these programs. Funding has been cut, program implementation hampered.
Now, one of the most myopic of these decisions may be facing a serious challenge from the new Congress. Last Thursday the House voted, 223 to 201, to reverse a ban on contraception aid to groups overseas that offer abortions, a pillar of President Bush's foreign aid policy. The language would not allow the US to fund abortions, but would allow contraceptive funding to go to organizations that, as part of their health programs, provide access to abortion -- a standard which the Supreme Court has ruled is constitutionally required in the United States. The New York Times reported that "Mr. Bush is likely to veto the proposal, and the veto is likely to be upheld by conservative lawmakers." Sadly the Times is right -- even though academic studies have repeatedly shown that the net effect of the US policy of not funding effective contraceptive programs world-wide has resulted in an enormous increase in the number of abortions.
But it is striking that Congress is fighting back and forcing Republicans members, in particular, to decide where they stand. In this case, the mainstream GOP tradition is clear: It's pro-family planning. President Bush's father was a major leader in the first federal legislation supporting family planning; presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani used to be a Planned Parenthood donor; and the icon of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, was such a strong family planning advocate that Planned Parenthood annually gives an award named after him to the Republican legislator who has done the best job of defending reproductive rights each year. This is one important area where even Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith takes a strong stance against contraception, regularly signed legislation when he served as Governor of Massachusetts to make sure that poor women had access to contraceptive services.
And it certainly appears from their family size that prominent Republican leaders like George Bush and Dick Cheney are highly effective "contraceptors." But giving poor women around the globe access to the same medical care that they take for granted seems to be inconvenient when it comes to satisfying their most socially reactionary supporters.
It's clear that this is a very important battle. Only a few months ago economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in Scientific American that "even as the U.S. has sharply cut back its efforts on helping poor countries to reduce fertility rates, the evidence is overwhelming that rapid, voluntary and highly beneficial transitions to low fertility rates are possible." Sachs also points out that, "The case for spurring rapid and voluntary reductions in fertility rates in the poorest countries is overwhelming. It would be among the smartest investments that the rich countries can make today for their own future welfare." Why? Because it would raise living standards and reduce environmental pressures ("water stress, land degradation, over-hunting and fishing, falling farm sizes, deforestation and other habitat destruction"), especially in the destabilized Middle East and Africa.
This is one battle the new Congressional leadership must win.