U.S. family planning policy racks Third World

The war in Afghanistan was a victory for international morality, not only for taking away a haven for terrorists, but also for ending the brutal suppression of the rights of women that the Taliban had imposed.

Yet before we congratulate ourselves too much, consider the tens of thousands of women and men who have died as a result of a misguided U.S. policy (the "gag rule") that denies family planning money to any organization that – in countries where abortion is legal – provides abortion related information or services (using private money), along with other reproductive health services. In some countries, a third of the family planning clinics have closed as a result of the withdrawal of U.S. money.

Some special interest groups are trying to bring about a total ban on U.S. spending for family planning services – even by organizations that abide by the gag rule – by pumping out phony statistics and misleading press releases implying that world population growth has nearly stopped and is about to go into decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Net growth has slowed slightly, but the world's population is still growing by 76 million per year – the equivalent of adding a new U.S. population every four years.

A similar campaign of lies and distortions is in process to raise questions about the safety and effectiveness of condoms. Men and women across Africa are dying of AIDS because religious fundamentalists have persuaded them not to use condoms on the basis that the manufacturers have supposedly infected condoms with the HIV virus.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 27 million are infected with HIV and about 20 million have already died of AIDS. Supplies of U.S.-donated condoms and other contraceptives have been reduced significantly in at least 29 countries. Men in sub-Saharan Africa have access to an average of only three condoms a year. In southern Africa, where more than a quarter of the adult population is living with HIV/AIDS, unavailability of condoms is a death sentence.

The human suffering caused by these misguided policies and inadequate spending is staggering:

600,000 women and girls die worldwide every year from pregnancy and childbirth – a figure equal to U.S. deaths in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam combined.

140,000 women bleed to death each year during childbirth.

75,000 women die each year trying to end their pregnancies. The United Nations estimates that worldwide, 50,000 women and girls try to induce abortions on themselves each day (18.3 million per year). Many of those who survive face life-long, disabling pain.

Approximately 100,000 women die each year from infection, and another 40,000 women die from the agony of prolonged labor. And those are only the fatalities. UNICEF's statistics show that for every woman who dies, 30 survive with gruesome injuries and disabilities. That's more than 17 million women per year.

Add to that the exhausting burden of repeated pregnancies and births, and you have a global picture of suffering that demands global response.

America is divided about the morality of abortion, but very few Americans would ban all abortions under every circumstance. It is time to acknowledge that pretending that banning contraception in developing countries is likely to make the abortion problem worse, not better.

And it is time to acknowledge that our policy on abortion abroad is far more restrictive than it is in our own country. It seems to me that we have at least found some compromise in America by allowing states to set their own policies on abortion within federal guidelines. Surely we can permit other countries to do the same when it comes to contraception.

E-mail Howard Dean at howarddean@democracyforamerica.com