The Family Held Hostage

You don’t have to be liberal to believe in birth control. U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, recently joined forces to introduce a bill that would require insurance companies that cover prescription drugs to also cover prescription contraceptives. In the House, a similar bill was introduced by the bipartisan team of Democrat Nita Lowey of New York and Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut.

ILLUSTRATION: Jerry Russell

The insurance lobby bitterly opposes these bills, and it’s not because they’ll cost the companies money. Obviously, with lifetime care for a single child climbing past $1 million, a lot of that health-related, financially prudent insurers would be expected to embrace family planning. But that ignores a central reality in the birth control debate: abortion.

Through the machinations of the religious right, including Trenton, New Jersey’s one-track congressman, Christopher Smith, family planning is being held hostage to one of America’s most emotionally charged issues. As our cover story shows, groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, working closely with their allies in congress, have successfully blocked millions of dollars in U.S. family planning aid from reaching poor women in the Third World, where large families are a luxury few can afford.

But choosing not to have children, or choosing to have only one, a concept author Bill McKibben eloquently defends in this issue’s “Conversations,” is not abortion. Birth control is a fact of life even in majority Catholic countries like Brazil, where 70 percent of reproductive-age women use it. As Smith and his cronies must realize, cutting off access to birth control leads to italmoreend ital abortion simply because there are more unwanted pregnancies.

In the U.S., access to birth control has been lost to many who become patients in Catholic hospitals. The ban has been extended to such procedures as tubal ligations and vasectomies, which the Church has characterized as “morally and spiritually harmful.” The impact of these religious hospitals is growing, especially in California, as the Church continues a series of mergers and acquisitions. When the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance merged recently with the non-Catholic San Pedro Peninsular Hospital, for instance, all access to birth control was cut off. The decline in access mirrors a sharp drop in public expenditures on birth control. Total U.S. spending dropped 27 percent between 1980 and 1994, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports.

According to a recent Roper poll, a majority of Americans believe that the federal government should provide contraceptives and free sterilization to poor men and women who voluntarily chose it. Although private, nonpartisan groups like Population Services International, which operates in 50 countries, do an excellent job of providing that kind of aid, they can’t do it all by themselves.

World Bank funding for family planning has declined 50 percent since 1990, and American aid, constantly roiled in political controversy, has slowed to a trickle and become unreliable. But as an angry Dr. Amy Pollack, president of the family planning group AVSC International, describes it, the cuts “make no sense. It doesn’t save the U.S. any money, and it’s destroying a well-performing, well-established program.”

We need to restore common sense to our international family planning aid. As we approach six billion inhabitants on a planet with dwindling resources, even someone as tunnel-minded as Christopher Smith should be realizing that the population growth surge we’ve experienced can’t continue.