We publish today a letter from M. Peter McPherson, the administrator of the Agency for International Development, and, on the opposite page, two articles concerning AID's new policy on grants for natural family planning in developing countries. The administrator corrects a wrong figure in an earlier editorial on the size of AID's population budget, and he takes exception to our criticism of the new natural family planning program he is about to put into effect. The articles by Margaret Winfield Sullivan and Frances Kissling reinforce in human and philosophical terms our belief that the criticism was well-founded.
At issue is the government's decision to give some family planning foreign aid money to groups that believe there is only one acceptable method of family planni -- the so-called natural method -- and who refuse to provide poor women with information about other kinds of contraception. We have no quarrel with educating women about the rhythm method as one of a number of alternative means to plan childbearing. In some cultures this is the only method that is acceptable, and it is certainly better than nothing. But the natural method is without doubt the least reliable form of contraception, and it is the refusal of AID grantees to provide information on other options that is objectionable.
There are some groups in this country who object, on religious grounds, to vaccinations. Would we consider putting them in charge of a federally funded program to combat polio in the Third World if they taught only about the need to avoid crowds in summer or the benefits of hot water massage without mentioning the fact that an effective vaccine against polio is available? Would that be fair to the people who look to American aid programs for information and help? Would it eve be medically ethical to withhold advice on the most effective treatment when the consequence of ignorance can be fatal? These same considerations are relevant to AID's decision to fund programs that provide only a little bit of information about family planning while withholding advice that has proven to be much more effective.
It's fine to talk about the need to encourage more competition for AID contracts, as Mr. McPherson does, but it makes sense only if that competition produces better programs. That is not what will happen here. The expertise of the natural family planning advocates can be incorporated into comprehensive family planning programs, but it should not be allowed to supplant them. Those groups that believe they cannot, in good conscience, cooperate in comprehensive population planning programs should not be encouraged to bid for AID contracts to bring these critically needed services and information to the developing world.