Despite President Bush's inaugural proclamation that ``America's faith in freedom and democracy . . . is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations,'' one of his first acts in office was to limit free speech in emerging democracies.
Bush did this by reinstating a global gag rule on family planning organizations overseas, telling them that if they perform abortions with their own funds or talk about abortion with their patients or their own governments, they may not receive family planning assistance from the United States. This would be considered an assault on the First Amendment if it applied here at home. What is worse, it profoundly misrepresents what these organizations actually do.
Explaining his decision, Bush said ``taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad.'' But no federal funds are used either at home or abroad to pay for abortions. It is against the law. Nor are U.S. funds used to pay for lobbying expenses. In fact, those dollars give women options that actually reduce abortions. They go for contraceptive services in agencies that, with their own money, may offer women abortion counseling, referrals or services as part of the provision of complete information about contraception and reproductive health.
Family planning clinics save women's lives, and if they must close for lack of U.S. funding, women and children will die. Each year, 600,000 women worldwide die of pregnancy-related causes; 78,000 from unsafe abortions. UNICEF estimates that one out of every four could be saved through access to family planning help. Women are dying because they are having too many children, too early and too close together. Very often their children die, too.
Further, 34 million cases of HIV/AIDS are now ravaging the developing world. Half of new infections are among people under 25. AIDS orphans in the worst-hit 19 African nations will number 40 million by 2010. Family planning clinics are often the best, if not the only, places where women can learn ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from this disease.
Most developing countries have few health-care providers for women. The global gag rule forces U.S.-funded clinics choose between the ethical practice of medicine within the laws of their own countries and the demands of the president of the United States. How can Bush claim to be compassionate if he cuts off funding to a lifeline for millions of women in the developing world?
By denying women access to family planning services, the United States will endanger thousands of lives. Bush got one thing right. This is a moral issue. He has just come down on the wrong side.
DeSarno is president and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.