PETER McPHERSON, administrator of the Agency for International Development, reaffirmed to Congress last week his agency's earlier finding that the United Nations "neither funds abortion nor supports coercive family planning practices" in China or elsewhere. At the same time, however, he announced his decision to cut off U.S. contributions to U.N. population programs on the grounds that they do support such activities. Mr. McPherson's internal confusion might be funny if it did not have such devastating consequences for developing countries struggling to cope with runaway population growth.

Mr. McPherson defends his contradictory positions on the ground that Rep. Jack Kemp expressed the view that an amendment he sponsored to a supplemental appropriation bill meant something quite different from what its language said. Never mind that the conference committee adopted the wording of a Senate amendment instead of Mr. Kemp's, or that the final version specifically left it to the president or secretary of state (not to Mr. Kemp, or, for that matter, Mr. McPherson) to decide whether the U.N. or other agencies "support or participate in the management of" coercive programs.

The effect of Mr. McPherson's appalling decision is to stop the major source of support for what is now the largest remaining multilateral organization providing family planning help in the developing world (earlier administration actions have already crippled the largest nongovernmental organizations). The administrator says he will redirect the money through bilateral programs, long regarded as less desirable channels because they may be regarded by recipient countries as U.S. intrusions into matters of individual choice.

Mr. McPherson says that U.N. funding might possibly be restored if the Chinese government backed up its repeated renunciations of coercive practices with additional actions, or if aid were limited to provision of contraceptive devices. But these compromises will never satisfy certain groups on the right that pressured Mr. McPherson into his current reversals. They have made it clear that their goal is not simply to stop any coercive practices in China -- a matter that could be far more effectively pursued by bilateral negotiations than by disabling U.N. programs that have actually been a force for moderation in China -- but to force the United States to stop funding any methods of birth control other than those their religious beliefs deem "natural." These groups will continue their destructive work until Congress and the administration have the courage to stand up to them and deal with this issue openly and honestly.