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BY John Burger
NEWYORK—What was supposed to be the final session of the United Nations' meeting on population stalled March 31 at 1 a.m. after the Vatican and Third World allies opposed U.N. committee proposals during marathon, 15-hour negotiations.
The March 24-31 meeting on population and development was meant to prepare a final document for the U.N. General Assembly that would guide the implementation of population policies first set down in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994.
Delegates of the Holy See and the Group of 77, an organization of 133 nations from the developing world, argued for more medicine and relief to poor countries. They opposed attempts by delegates of the United States and the European Union to stress ideological and contraceptive concerns. According to the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, headquartered in United Nations Plaza, these included attempts to:
• Make “sexual and reproductive rights” equal to human rights.
• Provide “sexual and reproductive rights” for adolescents as young as 10 years old.
• Allow exceptions for “emergency contraception,” against current bans on abortion-as-contraception.
The meeting presented many of the same challenges to the Vatican and pro-life organizations that they had faced five years earlier in Cairo. The March “preparatory committee” meeting in New York will have to be revisited in May and will culminate in the so-called Cairo+5 Conference this summer. In a related meeting, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women revisited 1995's Beijing conference (see story, Page 18).
“A disproportionate amount of attention has been given to a very limited understanding of reproductive health,” said Bishop James T. McHugh on March 24, representing the Holy See at the weeklong meeting. Bishop McHugh, a veteran of the 1994 Cairo conference, argued that not enough attention is being paid to health, education, the family, the aging and migrants.
The bishop was proved right as most member states voted against a Holy See-sponsored provision seeking basic social services for refugees and migrants, including access to health care, clean water and sanitation. The Holy See was rebuffed by most delegations, including the United States, when it asked for help in getting the clause in to a document it was preparing for the summer conference.
Bishop McHugh, coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., made it clear at the meeting that the Holy See has not changed its moral position against abortion, contraception, sterilization or the use of condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention. But its 12 members tried to focus attention on issues such as stable family life and educational opportunities for children.
Delegates to the meeting generally lined up along a north-south polarity, with wealthy, secular countries facing off with poor, Catholic or Islamic nations on many of the same hot-button issues that were debated in Cairo, particularly those having to do with reproduction.
Many of the pro-life organizations participating in the meeting still see a bleak picture in the population control movement. Dr. John C. Willke, president of the International Right to Life Federation, pointed out that in southeast Africa, AIDS and other factors have lowered the life expectancy from 60 to 37 years of age.
“Yet we are still imposing birth control on them,” he said.
Willke commented that over the past five years, “the U.S. has pushed with great compulsion the radical pro-abortion, anti-family, feminist, homosexual agenda under the guise of population control.”
Missionaries interviewed by the Register shared much the same view.
A disproportionate amount of attention has been given to a very limited understanding of reproductive health...
Salesian Father John Thompson, who has worked in Liberia and Sierra Leone since 1980, said West Africa experienced a boom in population in the 1980s but not in the past decade, when contraceptives from abroad were “all over the place,” he said.
“NGOs [non-governmental organizations] give out condoms left and right,” he told the Register. “There's been a massive push in the past 10 years.”
Most non-governmental organizations are interested in treating disease, not just in curbing population, in Father Thompson's estimation. But pro-life observers such as U.N. lobbyist Mary Meaney find the contraceptive push to be in overdrive. While in Kenya recently, she found a woman lying on the side of the road in need of medical attention. Driving her five hours to a hospital, she could find no doctors and no medicine, but the hospital did have about 75,000 condoms on hand.
Some Muslim, African and Asian delegates to the U.N. meeting worked to get sexual “rights” considerations out of the document, while Canada called for consideration of sexual orientation and the European Union advanced language supporting “reproductive rights” for adolescents as young as 10 years old.
“Our greatest concern is language about emergency and post-coital contraception, which we see as abortive,” said Msgr. James M. Reinert, an attaché to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. “We're willing to admit that it may not always be abortive, but the other side is not willing to admit that it is sometimes abortive. They insist it's only contraceptive.”
The World Health Organization takes the latter view, but pro-life lobbyists pointed out that some contraceptives allow a human egg to be fertilized but prevent the resulting zygote, the first stage of human development, to be implanted in the womb.
“Sperm swims to the ovum in as little as 30 minutes,” Willke told the Register. “A woman can be pregnant before she gets out of bed.”
The Church's stand was appreciated by many delegations which are “getting mighty tired hearing the constant calls for reproductive rights,” said Austin Ruse, director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. “There are much bigger problems people have to deal with, such as in the area of development.”
For poor people in the Sierra Leone countryside, children are not a burden but a blessing, said Father Thompson. They are security to elderly parents, and a family might have seven or eight children, anticipating loss of some to war and disease. Even natural family planning is a tough sell, the missionary said.
Funding was also a contentious issue at the meeting. Commitments made at the Cairo Conference have fallen short, and the report on the March meeting will ask for more money.
The Holy See and Nicaragua introduced language, written by a Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute-led coalition, that would limit family planning money to voluntary programs, with a narrow definition of “voluntary.” Similar to a bill introduced into the U.S. Congress last fall by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, RKan., the resolution seeks to remove coercive elements from funding.
But, again, the Holy See was unsuccessful.
“There would be no quotas, no schedules, no timetables, no promises of food or medicine,” Ruse said of the proposal. “It says that other aid can't be based on acceptance of family planning programs. So, for example, the U.S. wouldn't be able to say to another government, ‘We'll give you a million dollars worth of food, but you have to take a million dollars worth of condoms.’”
Such a resolution could help poor countries that are vulnerable to the pressure of countries like the United States. “If you are a small, Third World country, you'd jolly well do what the wealthy nations want you to do or you won't get the help you need,” Willke commented.
In Nigeria, for example, the government “will take anything as long as it's not paying for it,” in the view of one observer from that nation, which is struggling with democratic reforms.
Nigeria is vulnerable to foreign pharmaceutical companies, who sell watered-down drugs there, according to Father Charles Imokhai, who has spent most of his 31 years as a priest in the African nation. “Typhoid is very easy to treat, but if you are handing out drugs that are not genuine, it's deadly,” he told the Register.
There is not enough medical care for children, but primary care clinics promote contraceptives, Father Imokhai observed. Condoms brought into the country to fight AIDS are later promoted for birth control.
Father Imokhai, who has ministered in New York since 1995, would rather see more attention paid to proper trash removal in the big cities of Nigeria and sanitary water in the countryside.
John Burger writes from New York.