Funding the other choice

National | On the theory that Planned Parenthood funding has reached entitlement status, one pro-lifer seeks to even the playing field by funding abortion alternatives

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

in Washington - If nothing else, HR 2901 may finally put the linguistic debate over abortion to rest. Pro-lifers have long derided the "pro-choice" label, insisting that Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women aren't interested in choice at all-that they are advocating abortion, pure and simple. "No, no," says the other side, suitably shocked. "We want to see the abortion rate decline, but we want to make sure that women make that choice." The so-called pro-choice bloc in Congress may soon have a chance to put its money where its mouth is. And not all that much money, by federal spending standards: $85 million a year to make sure women understand that they do have choices besides abortion. That amount is a mere drop in the budgetary ocean, but it's likely to swamp the left bank of American politics in a tidal wave of controversy. Introduced on Sept. 21 by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), the Women and Children's Resources Act is modest enough in its scope. It provides grants that state governments can use to fund abortion alternative services, including maternity homes, crisis pregnancy centers, and adoption agencies. The money would be divvied up to the states according to a formula: the more abortions and out-of-wedlock births in a particular state, the more federal help for abortion alternatives. Mr. Pitts, a reliable pro-life vote in the House, modeled his bill on a program he helped to institute as appropriations chairman in the Pennsylvania legislature. Known as Women in Need, the Pennsylvania program distributes $3.1 million a year to "agencies that provide comprehensive, life-affirming alternatives to abortion." That dollar figure was no accident: It was designed to fund abortion alternative services at the same level as state contraception services. Now Mr. Pitts wants to apply the same funding logic at the federal level. According to the General Accounting Office, Planned Parenthood receives about $123 million a year in taxpayer support. Conservatives have long tried-without success-to cut off that funding stream. The Pitts bill takes a different approach: It leaves abortion funding in place, but provides nearly equal funding for abortion alternatives. "It merely attempts to ensure that all choices are available to women-including childbirth," is the way Mr. Pitts explains the bill to his colleagues. That logic has already won over at least one influential colleague. The support of Mrs. Bono, a well-known moderate on social issues, gives the Pitts bill a better chance of winning more votes from the center. Mr. Pitts acknowledges such support was crucial to his strategy. "I approached her," he says. "This is a bridge-builder between pro-choice and pro-life groups. Activists on the other side won't like it. But this is something that will be acceptable to the average pro-choice constituent.... No woman wants to feel she's forced to have an abortion. This bill increases her options, her choices." Because of the busy legislative calendar, Mr. Pitts realizes that he won't get his bill passed this year, but he hopes to at least hold hearings to increase public awareness of the problem. He reels off statistics he hopes will make his case: 83 percent of post-abortive women said they would not repeat the procedure; 63 percent said they did not have enough information prior to making their choice; 98 percent of women who have used the services of a crisis pregnancy center reported a "positive impact" from their experience there. To help ensure that more women enjoy such a positive impact, the Women and Children's Resources Act would provide funds for advertising campaigns and statewide toll-free referral systems. Private service providers-many of them faith-based-would receive funds for a whole range of offerings, including pregnancy testing, baby food, maternity clothing, abstinence education, adoption referrals, and vocational training. Can an $85 million federal program really make a difference in the abortion rate? Mr. Pitts notes that abortions in Pennsylvania have declined over the past three years-just as 26,000 expectant mothers in that state were taking advantage of the Women in Need program. That's 26,000 choices that didn't go the way "pro-choicers" intended. Now they face a choice of their own: Support a bill that is politically repugnant to them, or display clearly a pro-abortion philosophy. It's a Catch-22 that pro-lifers will find deliciously ironic.

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