Anyone truly concerned about reducing infant mortality and other suffering in the developing world knows how important a contribution voluntary family planning programs can make to that effort. Unfortunately, under cover of protesting reported instances of infanticide and coerced abortion in China, opponents of family planning programs have been promoting vaguely worded amendments that would effectively block U.S. support for this essential humanitarian aid.

Concerned legislators in both Houses -- led most actively by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and Rep. Olympia Snowe -- know that the amendments being pushed by Sen. Jesse Helms, Reps. Jack Kemp and Chris Smith are neither necessary nor suitable for preventing U.S. aid from flowing to any such coercive programs. Both Sen. Kassebaum and Rp. Snowe are sponsors of amendments that would block any U.S. money from flowing either directly or through other agencies to Chinese population programs. Sen. Daniel Inouye is offering proposals that would deal still more directly with any abuses in China.

But foes of family planning will not settle for these strong but straightforward measures. Sen. Helms has already succeeded in adding language to the Senate foreign aid reauthorization bill that would cut off all U.S. support for the U.N. population programs, despite the fact that the administration has twice reaffirmed that no U.N. money is used for any abortion- related activities. Rep. Chris Smith will attempt to add even more damaging amendments to the House reauthorization measure.

Rep. Kemp has added seemingly innocuous language to a House supplemental appropriations bills that, according to his stated interpretation of its meaning, would also cut off the U.N. programs that are the main or only source of population aid for many of the poorest countries. Still another Helms ploy, unsuccessful thus far, defines abortion -- not just coerced abortion but any legal abortion as practiced in this country, Europe or anywhere else -- as a human rights violation that the president could combat with the full force of his constitutional powers.

Most senators and representatives understand that U.S. aid for foreign population planning is actually one of the best ways of reducing traditional reliance on abortion and infanticide. But, through a combination of inattention -- and fear of being branded as baby-killers by the religious right -- many have looked the other way while Sen. Helms and his allies have tacked on their destructive amendments. These legislators may find this behavior convenient, but their consciences should remind them that it is also cowardly and cruel.