Monday, April 11, 2011

Could U.S. policies be promoting world poverty

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 6/15/2007

What do you get when you combine the following: a government funded study on the effectiveness of U.S. abstinence programs in stopping teenagers from having sex, a World Bank report on the importance of sex education in combating worldwide poverty, a Rand Corp. report dispelling common myths and criticisms about international family planning programs, and current U.S. policies regarding international family planning?

My conclusion is that U.S. policy promotes world poverty.

Fact 1: In April, a federal government-funded study on the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education was released. This was a longitudinal study of 2,000 teenagers over a five-year period. A longitudinal design is the only design that is going to deliver the data to adequately assess cause and effect of a program like this.

The findings? Abstinence-only programs are no better or worse than ones that provide information about contraception and “safe-sex” practices in terms of stopping teens from having sex. Condom use was the same in those who received abstinence-only education as those who received information about contraception. What this tells me is that kids do lots of talking and our media saturate the airwaves with information about condoms. That, however, cannot be said for the developing world.

Fact 2: A 2005 World Bank Report titled “Education and Development” focuses on the importance of educating women as an effective anti-poverty measure. And controlling fertility is a cornerstone to achieving that. According to the report: “Women with formal education are much more likely to use reliable family planning methods, delay marriage and childbearing, and have fewer and healthier babies than women with no formal education. It is estimated that one year of female schooling reduces fertility by 10 percent. The effect is particularly pronounced for secondary schooling.” Part of that education includes family planning education.

Fact 3: According to a Rand Corp. Policy Brief, reducing fertility contributes to economic development. As the proportion of dependent children in the population shrinks, the proportion of working age adults increases, which boosts productivity and investment savings. There is even a name for the phenomenon, the “demographic boost.” You don’t have to believe Rand. Despite the ethical and moral concerns, China and India have taken drastic means to reduce fertility in their countries. It has worked and they are rapidly developing (in case you haven’t noticed).

Fact 4. It costs very little to fund effective family planning programs. Domestically, the federal government spends less than $200 million on its abstinence-only programs. Family planning programs are a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of battling AIDS, for example. Nevertheless, U.S. policy since 1973 forbids U.S. money to be used for abortions. Republican administrations since Reagan have imposed a global gag rule on non-government organizations that provide family planning. They cannot even mention abortion to their clients, much less provide one.

In 1998, Congress prohibited use of U.S. monies for any organization that uses coercive methods, incentives, targets or quotas in their family planning practices. If the U.S. were a foreign country, would we qualify since we have incentives for kids called tax deductions and tax credits? Since 2002, one-third of all monies aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention must emphasize abstinence-until-marriage programs. This is contrary to the health professionals who advocate the “abstain,” be faithful, use a condom approach.

As we can see by our approach to our teens, the abstain-until-marriage programs are no more effective than conventional approaches, so what are we really doing?

Fact 5. Condoms are effective in reducing fertility and lowering the risk of contracting HIV. Currently, the U.S. has so many restrictions on the use of international monies that there is a shortage of contraceptives for distribution in developing countries. In 2006, a bill was introduced in Congress, the “Ensuring Access to Contraceptives Act.” It was reintroduced this year and awaits committee action.

Therefore, if family planning and contraception are effective in reducing fertility (married people need it, too, abstaining even after marriage isn’t realistic, even in our goofy political climate), and the U.S. is restricting funding for these programs which in turn are cornerstones in reducing world poverty, then U.S. policy promotes world poverty.

I’m not suggesting an intentional policy here to promote world poverty. This is an unanticipated outcome of our domestic political squabbling. Abstinence-only family planning and a refusal to fund abortions are rooted in specific moral and ethical universes. What moral/ethical universe finds even the unintentional promotion of poverty acceptable?

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