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Playing Politics with Population


On one issue, at least, the Clinton administration is succeeding in turning U.S. policy around. No longer will population policy be held hostage by a noisy domestic constituency. One of President Clinton's earliest moves was his announcement that the United States would resume a leadership role in international family planning efforts. Last week, when State Department Counselor Timothy E. Wirth spelled out the administration's views to a United Nations committee, the audience cheered.

The Reagan-Bush policy of using U.S. population assistance as an extension of this country's divisive abortion debate was truly over.

The change is overdue. The most recent figures from the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. show that world population is increasing by 90 million people each year, a number equivalent to the entire population of Mexico. Third World countries account for 95 percent of that increase.

But those countries are straining to feed, house, educate and employ the people they already have. A glance at their circumstances indicates why an enlightened population policy is important to Americans. Burgeoning population growth in poor countries creates political and economic strains that eventually spill over into the developed world. Terrorism, ethnic fighting, uncontrolled immigration -- rapid, unsustainable population growth contributes to all these ills.

But statistics gloss over a painful contradiction: Excessive population growth kills people. About 40 million people die each year in developing countries; 9.6 million of them are infants who never reach their first birthday. Another nine or 10 million children die before the age of 5. Their mothers' lives are equally precarious. Maternal mortality rates in these countries are 15 times higher than in the industrialized world.

Family planning programs provide the only health care many women have. They also save lives by enabling families to space their children, thus increasing their odds of survival and saving a mother's strength from depletion by yearly childbearing. As the industrialized world demonstrates, population rates stabilize when people are given a fighting chance to climb out of poverty. Family planning helps them do that.

The Reagan-Bush attack on family planning in effect depicted these efforts as vehicles for promoting abortion. Citing reports of coercive abortions in China, the Reagan administration denied U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the world's two largest international family planning agencies. The move glossed over the inconvenient fact that the abortion problem in most countries is the high death rate from illegal abortions sought out by desperate women.

It suited previous administrations to play politics with population programs. But those policies took an awful toll on real lives. No wonder Mr. Wirth's speech last week met such a joyous response.

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