REP. DAVID OBEY, chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with foreign aid appropriations, says he won't recommend any money for international family planning programs next year until Congress decides what if any policy it wants to pursue. Mr. Obey is no foe of these programs. But, he points out, amendments added to other bills, together with new restrictive administration regulations, may have put most family planning programs out of business already. As a result, the need for continued funding is unclear.

It would be nothing less than a tragedy if the United States, for more than a generation the world's principal sponsor of population aid for developing countries, ended its support. No small element of the tragedy would be the increases in infanticide, abortion and infant mortality that would inevitably result. But Congress cannot go on pretending to respond to widespread public support for voluntary family planning programs while also making it impossible for those programs to operate.

U.S. family planning aid has always operated on the premise that deference should be paid to local laws and customs and personal preferences. Channeling aid through voluntary and multilateral organizations has been the preferred approach to avoid the appearance or the reality of interference by the U.S. government. Developing a trustworthy network of service providers in impoverished and remote areas has not been easy. But the cooperation of church groups, voluntary organizations and local governments has produced significant progress in recent years. No U.S. money -- for that matter, no United Nations money -- is used for legal abortions, much less for coerced abortions or infanticide. The Reagan administration itself has investigated and certified that. Nonetheless, in the name of combating alleged coercive practices in China, both houses have adopted amendments to a supplemental appropriations bill and to the foreign aid authorization bill that may make it impossible for many family planning programs to operate.

The Agency for International Development, more aid to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the major operator of programs in developing countries, has now issued rules giving favored treatment to programs that counsel sexual abstinence as the only method of birth control. The new rules also require all other local agencies to stop dealing with doctors, hospitals and other medical service providers that perform legal abortions.

The most vocal groups advocating these restrictions make no bones about the fact that they oppose all "artificial" birth control. That's not a position that would win much support among U.S. families and certainly not one that Congress should be imposing on people in other countries, directly or indirectly. If Congress doesn't believe the Chinese government's assurances that it opposes infanticide and other abuses, it should deal with that issue head on instead of using it as an excuse to obliterate an immensely valuable world program.