WASHINGTON-They sound like something from a dark phase in history: stories of Western nations exploiting Third World women.

But the stories U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., tells come from recent news reports about the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Population Fund.

• In Bangladesh, “women consent to sterilization out of desperation for food,” said a statement from Tiahrt's office.

• In Honduras, USAID funds go to experiments with Ovrette, an unapproved contraceptive pill, said the fact sheet. Nursing mothers aren't told of the pill's known side effects, it claimed.

• In India, USAID funds sterilizations using Quinacrine, which is illegal there and works by burning and scarring the fallopian tubes. The report says, “Family planning programs depend on quotas, targets, bribes and coercion. … Conditions are miserable at the USAID-funded sterilization camps, there are primitive unsanitary conditions and appalling mortality rates.”

Similar quotas and coercive population control methods were outlined in Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines.

A bill proposed by Tiahrt to curtail some of the most egregious abuses received near unani mous approval in the House in March, passing on a voice vote and bypassing committee hearings altogether.

U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, RKan., hopes it will pass in the Senate and go to President Clinton's desk for signing in time for a five-year review of the U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development. That conference will be held in New York from June 30 to July 2. “We couldn't be happier about it,” Brownback said. “This is one of the few points of family planning advocacy both sides can agree on.”

Senate Resolution 100 will be reviewed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it returns from recess June 15.

USAID, the largest U.S.-funded provider of family planning services worldwide, denies that the quotas and coercive policies exist.

A USAID contractor, Population Action International, told the Register, that despite the agency's efforts to prevent abuse on the ground, non-governmental organizations that depend on outside funding are under pressure to meet set objectives.

“It is possible that aggressive marketing of family planning methods could result in negligence,” said Population Action International spokesman Craig Lasher.

Lasher said he didn't think the Senate bill was necessary, adding that it “simply enshrines as law principles USAID has always held.”

Brownback called the bill's final draft a compromise between Population Action International and himself.

“I guess it was one definition of compromise,” Lasher said, adding that a clause was dropped from the original bill that would have allowed medics to refuse treatment on moral grounds.

“The important person here is the woman or man, not the health-care worker,” Lasher said. “Our objective is to ensure the widest possible access to care … [and] to the extent that this bill affirms voluntarism and informed consent, we support it. We just wish its sponsors would support family planning.”

Asked if he thought women in the Third World were particularly vulnerable to coercive practices, Lasher said, “No, they are not. There are safeguards there to prevent abuses and pages upon pages of regulations contained in cooperative agreements.”

Dave Hannah, a spokesman for Rep. Tiahrt, defended the bill against the charge of redundancy. “Advocates of population control may say that they're for the principles outlined in the U.N. Program of Action — that they're all for voluntarism, but ‘voluntary’ had yet to be defined,” he said. “Unfortunately, in many cases, ‘voluntary’ means offering a bribe to a poor woman in exchange for her consent. This is not voluntarism. This is coercion.”

Brownback downplayed USAID's role in coercion. “The way these programs are implemented encourages abuse,” he contended. “The quota system is the problem.

It's not Americans implementing the programs, but indigenous people, often as poor as their patients. They are desperate to meet their quotas and care little about the women they treat … this is really a women's rights issue.”

Joining the Vatican

Some senators and congressmen have joined the Vatican in opposing many of these programs, but see this bill as small way to limit their potential for harm.

Hannah attributed the bill's broad-base support in the House to its being presented positively, as a women's rights issue, rather than as an attack on family planning programs. “If this will help women and save babies, then we're happy,” Hannah said.

Brownback aide Sharon Payt agrees. She told us that taking a positive tack held greater appeal for senators who were uneasy about Brownback's overall opposition to U.S.-funded family planning programs abroad.

“We're not going to compromise our stance on the programs, but the bottom line of this bill is simple: not killing women,” Payt said. She said Brownback's concern on this was not to slip something by family planning proponents, but to build a bridge between both parties.

“This bill is about the abuse of women,” Brownback maintained, “and it expresses the need to protect the poorest of the poor among them, when they're at their most vulnerable. We expect this to be a bipartisan effort, and we think we are in an excellent position to get this thing passed.”

Brian McGuire writes from Washington, D.C.