Cliches, not answers


In town for a speech to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Vice President Dan Quayle held a wide-ranging interview with editors, during which he spoke movingly of his recent visit to five African countries. He stressed the need for the continent to undertake economic reforms and, especially, to develop multi-party systems that allow for political dissent.

He also recounted a visit to a refugee center in Malawi where he and his wife, accompanied by Health Secretary Louis Sullivan and his wife, were taken into the camp infirmary's maternity ward. There they saw four women who had given birth only that morning, and who would be leaving the hospital by nightfall. What struck him most, Quayle said, was the stoicism in their expressions. Yet, confronted with the problem that is quickly undermining all other progress on the continent -- birthrates that are overwhelming nations -- Quayle abandoned analysis for cliches.

As a spokesman for the administration, he had no choice. The Bush administration has chosen to follow the Reagan lead on assistance to international family planning programs, withholding U.S. aid on the theory that these groups "promote" abortion, even though abortion is illegal in most undeveloped countries. This year both houses of Congress passed legislation that would reverse the infamous "Mexico City policy," which first staked out the position against family planning efforts at a U.N. population conference in 1984. That policy marked a dramatic reversal in which the United States abandoned its leadership role in helping developing nations provide education and contraceptives to their people. Since then, poor countries around the world have come to recognize that family planning programs are essential to their efforts to promote economic progress and political stability.

On the eve of the vice president's visit here, a House-Senate committee working out differences in a new foreign aid bill bowed to the president's veto threat and dropped efforts to reverse the Mexico City policy. But it did retain $20 million for the United Nations Population Fund, provided certain conditions are met.

This hobbling of assistance to family planning gives a hollow ring to Quayle's protestations that the solution to Africa's population problem is "education."

What good is explaining to people how to space their children far enough apart to give mothers and infants a decent chance to survive if the "education" does not also include the contraceptives that will realistically allow them to practice family planning?

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