Like every one who believes in sustainably managing the environment, preserving a woman’s right to choose or curbing the scourge of corporate realpolitik as exemplified by the Dick Cheney White House, I watched with horror last Tuesday as Lindsey Graham, John E. Sununu, Jim Talent and others became winners in a night of crushing defeat for progressive ideals. Seemingly overnight, the Republicans claimed the mandate to tackle their favorite issues. They will start with the war and the economy, but eventually Republicans in Congress will take stands on issues like national energy policy and family planning, topics that Americans are deeply divided over.
As an environmentalist, what particularly worries me is the threat being posed to responsible forms of family planning at home and abroad. The equation is simple. With the population rising by 78 million people per year and affluence on the rise as well, technology and education are necessary to reduce fertility levels and decrease the stresses of overpopulation. According to the Population Institute, 350 million women did not want their last child, and they do not want another.
The issue, then, does not involve convincing citizens of developing countries, where 97 percent of population growth is taking place, to plan their families; rather, it is about helping people who already want to plan their families to do so. The United States can play a vital role in this by giving aid to projects in developing countries. These projects not only distribute birth control devices but also educate women and their partners about how to control the size of their families. But the United States has recently abandoned any involvement with these vital international family planning efforts.
Days after taking office in 2000, President Bush infamously re-enacted Reagan’s “Mexico City Policy,” which cuts off all U.S. aid to international groups that perform or even discuss abortion. Since most international family planning groups at the very least discuss abortion, this effectively cut off U.S. aid to groups that mainly perform services that are necessary and less controversial than abortion, like educating men about condom use or teaching women about reproductive health. In May, at the United Nations’ special session on children, delegates were treated to the spectacle of the U.S. delegation powwowing with Syria and Iran. With countries that are supposedly our ideological foes, we were seeing eye to eye on how to push for worldwide adoption of abstinence-only sex education programs. These programs have recently been shown, through studies of the “virginity pledge” movement in America, to lead eventually to unprotected sex and unwanted children.
Then in July, Bush withdrew all $34 million of U.S. aid from the U.N. Population Fund, alleging that the fund financed forced sterilizations in China, a claim then found untrue by a U.S. research team. Just last month, the United States walked out of the Asian and Pacific Population Conference in Bangkok in protest over the terms “reproductive rights” and “reproductive health services” in a U.N. population declaration dating from 1994 that had been supported by the United States until recently.
In all of these recent situations, we balked on supporting the movement to bring sensible family planning options to those who want them simply because of our fears about the movement’s purported connection to abortion. But as Werner Fornos, the head of the Population Institute, pointed out in his Master’s Tea on campus last week, the 1994 Cairo agreement specifically said that abortion is not a form of family planning. As Fornos stressed, the family planning movement in general is not about encouraging rampant abortion or mass sterilization in the developing world, but “empowering” women and men to control their own reproduction.
But take a look at what’s going on at home. Politicians are promoting abstinence-only education, opposing the free distribution of RU-486 (which is supported by around half of the American public), and shifting the focus of the pro-life cause from late-term abortions to those in earlier trimesters. From all of this, you can clearly see a move towards not only outlawing abortion but also curbing legitimate forms of birth control and family planning.
When Americans voted for a Republican House and Senate last week, they were also voting, intentionally or not, against helping the family planning movement abroad and seeking to counteract family planning at home. Tuesday’s election was a victory for population growth and one small step towards a future of lost resources, of vacant forests, depleted soil, and waste-choked streams.
Jack Dafoe is a junior in Morse College. He is co-chairman of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.