Detroit Free Press
August 10, 2003 

Primitive ideas on women's health, family planning will hurt party

By  William G. Milliken 

[Milliken was Republican governor of Michigan from 1969 to 1983, and 
the longest-serving governor in the state's history].

The Republican Party could be setting itself up for defeat in 2004 in a 
scenario similar to what occurred in 1992. Then, the GOP lapsed into 
antediluvian rhetoric and policies at the convention, and the response 
still sends chills down the spine of party leaders. Yet by catering ever 
more abjectly to the noisy, reactionary extremists of our party who are 
determined to impose their sectarian views and morality on the rest of 
us, the GOP's vulnerability among moderate voters, particularly women, 
continues to intensify.

There was a time when politicians could appeal to prejudice and 
intolerance by baiting the opposition with red-meat code words. Not now. In 
this new millennium, the world is smaller, as different cultures, 
traditions and religious beliefs are merged together. Events in New York, 
Afghanistan and Iraq have educated Americans, as never before, to the 
perils of religious absolutism in a multicultural world. 

Most Americans are well aware that the societies that are most 
restrictive of women's rights are also the nations of greatest poverty, disease 
and environmental degradation, stemming from high birth rates and 
unrestricted population growth. We know that the lack of access to basic 
family planning services and information undermines a woman's ability to 
determine her own destiny. It also increases illness and mortality rates 
of women and their children, and inhibits the ability of families to 
climb out of poverty.

By playing the politics of the past, the GOP is allowing itself to 
become identified with an agenda on family planning that threatens to 
reverse the decades of progress in empowering women in the United States and 
abroad. The right wing is seeking to impose an entire set of 
doctrinaire beliefs that will sharply restrict health care for women and, as a 
result, actually increase the number of abortions worldwide.

Sadly, they are succeeding. These absolutists have just won a narrow 
vote in the U.S. House to cut in half America's contribution to the 
United Nation's Population Fund (UNFPA), the only truly worldwide effort to 
provide reproductive health services to families in the developing 
world. And last year, these absolutists helped to deny $34 million to the 
UNFPA program.

UNFPA officials estimated these funds -- $34 million worth -- would 
have prevented 2 million unintended pregnancies, nearly 800,000 abortions, 
4,700 maternal deaths, nearly 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness, 
and more than 77,000 infant and child deaths. Last year's denial of 
funding and this year's cut in funding, so-called victories for the far 
right, will likely again lead to millions of unintended pregnancies and a 
staggering increase in the number of abortions worldwide.

The right is doing this all the while knowing that counseling and 
education reduce the incidences of abortion. In Russia, for instance, 
greater funding of contraceptive and family planning services over a 4-year 
period led to a drop in abortions of 800,000 annually. This real-world 
evidence doesn't seem to matter to some in the GOP who seem oblivious to 
the logical corollary that freedom and choice on cultural and social 
policy must start at home.

The World Health Organization estimates that 40 percent of unintended 
pregnancies end in abortion. We know from UNICEF that almost 600,000 
women die annually during pregnancy and childbirth. The World Bank 
estimates that improved access to family planning can reduce the number of 
maternal deaths by 20 percent.

All Republicans will never universally agree on the highly emotionally 
charged issue of abortion. But at the very least, can't we agree that 
our aim is to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the incidence of abortion? 
The zeal of those on the far right has blinded them to the fact that 
their actions are actually increasing abortions worldwide.

Some in our party appear to model their plan for international family 
planning on the medieval social philosophy of the Taliban. But you won't 
attract many women voters by making the burka our party's fashion 
statement. Having seen the impoverished, uneducated and imprisoned women of 
the Middle East and Afghanistan, most voters will readily reject an 
agenda that undermines our international commitment to women's rights. The 
Republican Party should be ashamed of itself for relapsing into those 
policies that have caused so much political harm in the past.

As we head into another election cycle, we are certain to hear much 
about "compassionate conservatives." Last time it was a promise; this time 
it will be a matter of record. Voters who care about these issues will 
rightly ask themselves, "Is my country more compassionate than it was 
four years ago?" The GOP has only 15 months left to improve its record 
if it has any chance of getting skeptical women -- and men -- to answer, 


Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a 
finite world is either a madman or an economist.—Kenneth Boulding