Let us imagine the following scenario: a woman goes into a public family-planning clinic in any American city, looking for a way to limit or space her children.
The clinic gives her information about "natural" family planning, an updated version of rhythm. She is told that with careful monitoring of her vaginal mucus, tracking her temperature and abstinence, NFP is "highly effective."
How highly? she might ask. If the clinic shares the best research on the subject, she will be told that among careful users, 24 percent will become pregnant during one year.
Let us now imagine -- this is the easy part -- that she gulps and asks what else the clinic has to offer. The answer she gets is: "Nothing."
This is just a fantasy. It couldn't happen in America -- yet. A federally financed clinic is rquired to offer a full range of options to each client. We call this "informed consent." In any medical encounter, a patient must be given full information before she can consent to treatment.
Change the backdrop now to a Third World country and the scenario becomes all too real. The Reagan administration decided this summer to finance organizations that offer Third World women exactly one option: the "natural" one. Under a new directive, the Agency for International Development (AID) is passing out money not to the medically sound, but to the politically correct.
It is all part of the successful business in exporting our political disputes. Those who can't ban birth control here are trying it overseas. The government is, in effect, dumping right-wing ideology that it can't sell in America (the way others have dumped banned chemicals) on Third World markets.
The export business first began to thrive at the population conference in Mexico City last year. The U.S. government told an astonished collection of countries that we no longer believed that family planning was so vital for the developing world. The administration then went on to deny family- planning funds to the International Planned Parenthood Federation and to withhold funds from the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.
In both cases, the "hook" that pulled the financing rug out from under these organizations was the abortion issue. But neither group was using American government money for abortions. The real attack was on artificial birth control.
It is no secret that many of those opposed to abortion are also opposed to "unnatural" family planning. The American Life Lobby, for example, has opposed Title X, which provides 5 million American women with family planning.
Now the Reagan folk are using foreign policy not just to appease but also to finance this right-wing constituency. Money has been taken away from the United Nations by the one hand and given to groups such as the Family of the Americas Foundation by the other hand.
As a longtime AID staffer says, "This is no aberration. It's part of a concerted effort by groups opposed to family-planning progams to bring them to an end." As Faye Wattleton, head of Planned Parenthood, puts it: "They're promoting these policies abroad because it's the only place where they can give this constituency their red meat."
There is nothing inherently wrong with natural family planning. It is one of the choices offered by all our overseas programs. But it is also one of the least effective methods of preventing pregnancy.
A World Health Organization study showed that 35 percent of the women who use NFP in the Third World give it up after 13 months. Half of them give it up because they are pregnant. NFP supporters argue that the method isn't at fault, people are. But how do you call the method a success if the patient is pregnant?
The argument becomes theological, rather than scientific. But the main question is quite straightforward: Are women in foreign countries entitled to make the same choices from the same range of options that American women have? Will we allow Third World women to decide for themselves?
At the moment, only $7 million or $8 million of AID's budget is going to the "natural" method. But this is not family-planning money. It's political- payoff money. And the real target of these political players is much closer to home.