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On population policy, the president heeds a small group of fanatics

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002


Egypt has 68-million people, high unemployment and a per capita income of less than $1,500 a year. The situation may not sound inviting but it is a whole lot better than it could have been thanks to the work of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.

Before USAID began sponsoring reproductive planning programs and general education programs for girls (a proven method of reducing fertility rates), Egypt's population was more than doubling every 20 years. Today the population growth rate is down under 2 percent. And similar family planning successes have been obtained in countries around the world.

But this column isn't about USAID's good works. It is about the Population Research Institute, a small, aggressive anti-family-planning group that was instrumental in getting President Bush to refuse to release a $34-million appropriation to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

To the Virginia-based institute, USAID, UNFPA and every other major international family planning organization is the enemy of goodness and light. The view is not surprising, considering the extremist religious elements that founded and make up the group. What's amazing, though, is that this niggling little group of fanatics has the ear of the president.

To get a sense of just how over-the-edge this group is, take a look at the institute's Web site (www.pop.org). There, prominently posted is the "USAID Map of Shame," which will tell you country-by-country the amount of money the State Department agency requested for family planning purposes in relation to direct food aid and health care services. Apparently this is supposed to demonstrate USAID's true purpose as a decidedly "anti-natal" organization rather than an agency that cares about women and families. Never mind the obvious fact that a nation's long-term positive development -- USAID's mission -- is demonstrably tied to controlling birth rates.

Go to the page on Egypt and the institute condemns USAID for having requested $22-million to reduce fertility rates and another $10-million for schooling girls in 1999.

Oh, the shame of it.

The institute is an offshoot of the virulently anti-abortion group Human Life International. The founder of both HLI and the Population Research Institute is Paul Marx, a sociologist and Catholic priest who proudly boasts in his online biography that he's been named Planned Parenthood's "Public Enemy Number One." He once wrote of the organization:

"Having traveled in more than 90 countries of the world and seen Planned Parenthood's vicious anti-life/anti-family/anti-God evil propaganda and destruction, I know of no more wicked organization, no more insidious one, no more destructive one."

The institute's president, Steven Mosher, is a little more politically deft. He spent years in China and has written a couple of books on the subject of forced abortions and sterilizations there. Mosher insists the institute's concern over the U.S. funds going to UNFPA was the agency's active support of Chinese family planning programs in places where abuses occur. But a closer look at Mosher's writings indicate he is not so much a human rights activist as a purveyor of a fundamentalist Catholic doctrine opposing birth control.

In November 2000, Mosher wrote a diatribe against the United Nations: "How can the U.N. tout its commitment to decolonization and at the same time, through its Population Fund, spend hundreds of million (sic) of dollars each year to promote population control, a new and deadly form of neocolonialism?" He called family planning a form of "psychological warfare" designed to alter "child-friendly" attitudes in Africa and elsewhere.

Mosher's writings are infused with religious overtones. In his essay "Ten Great Reasons to Have Another Child," Reason One was to "join with God in the creation of an immortal soul," and Reason Ten was "to help populate heaven."

In response to testimony by the institute and pressure by conservative lawmakers, President Bush halted the distribution of $34-million to the UNFPA -- even after his own group of fact-finders returned from China with an express recommendation that the money be released. The group found no evidence that UNFPA knowingly supported programs of forced abortions or sterilizations. Instead, the fact-finders noted that where UNFPA operated, those abuses seem to have stopped.

With its budget slashed 12 percent as a result of the withholding, UNFPA estimates an additional 2-million unwanted pregnancies will occur, leading to 800,000 abortions and 4,700 dead mothers. Though, as a consolation, the diverted money will go to U.S. overseas health services.

When a group like the Population Research Institute has a seat at the table, reasonable minds are elbowed out. A group that sees voluntary family planning programs as "neocolonialism" and small families as cheating heaven isn't where our president should go for public policy advice. But that's where he's knocking. They're his kind of people.

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