Lobbying for Life and Death At the U.N.

If the following paragraph sounds at all confusing, imagine yourself appearing in the midst of a U.N. meeting as a first-time lobbyist, an amateur in the hallowed halls of international diplomacy. That's where I found myself recently, in the U.N. building in New York, wondering: Why are my greenhorn services needed? But after a few days in the trenches I could see that every possible pro-life witness was precious.

From March 24 to 31, the United Nations hosted a conference on “population and development” as a review of the first, and very controversial, Cairo Conference of 1994. At the March meeting, termed “Cairo+5,” national delegations and interested groups called “non-governmental organizations” were collaborating to prepare a special session of the General Assembly later this year. The General Assembly plans to issue a document appraising the implementation of the Program of Action agreed to in Egypt.

For lobbyists — both veterans and newcomers like myself — the mission was clear: to remind delegates that, behind the facts about “population” were human lives, and beyond the figures about “development” were moral imperatives. Ever since Cairo, in fact, there has been a push by the U.N. Fund for Population Activities to insist on worldwide access to abortion under the guise of “reproductive health,” and on the extension of family planning and so-called sexual rights to “adolescents,” defined as anyone 10 years old or more. Our duty was to speak directly to those delegates who were willing to listen, and later on to suggest precise wordings for the final document.

We had a mission control center, of sorts, also: the office of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which has a permanent presence at the United Nations. The pro-lifers at the conference formed a broad-based, loosely coordinated coalition. About 140 men and women paid their own way to come from as far as Australia with organizations representing Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims and Mormons. Many had previously participated in Cairo, Beijing or the recent preliminary meeting at The Hague, Netherlands.

Our only success came in lobbying developing nations. They have a particular stake in the Cairo issues since their populations are growing. Also, their national sovereignty is often at stake in these issues because the more powerful countries try to strong-arm them into accepting programs that limit population.

The “opposition” was quite aggressive. The International Planned Parenthood Federation was present in its many affiliated organizations, and it even had members in the national delegations. Catholics for a Free Choice were few in number yet very vocal, and even held a petition campaign to have the Holy See's status as a permanent observer of the United Nations reviewed and revoked.

Since I was a first-timer, I limited myself to lobbying with the handouts that different organizations had prepared on various issues. It was an almost impossibly difficult task.

First came some faltering steps. I spoke with the delegation from Venezuela — only to find that their minds were already very much aligned with Planned Parenthood. Argentina was one of the only countries vocally pro-life, even though a petition campaign was launched against their call for a Day of the Unborn. I tried with no avail to present facts that prove maternal mortality is linked much more closely with general women's health care and hygiene than with unsafe abortion. Even an Irish delegate was unimpressed when I pointed out, wielding my handout, that Ireland, where abortion is illegal, has the lowest maternal mortality in the world.

Bishop James McHugh responded to this argument best in the interview he gave the Register later on. He said the burden of proof must be on those who want to end life. And this is just the point that was missing in my many encounters that week.

There was a sense among the delegates that there was no need to question their own actions, that a “burden of proof” was no longer at issue. There was, rather, a self-assured attitude that treated the moral tradition of the world's major religions as an annoying roadblock to be pushed aside or walked around.

For them, “development” is merely materialistic and “population” is more often than not an obstacle to material comfort.

In the final day, the conference was deadlocked and unable to produce the final document we had all been lobbying to perfect. But if I could choose just one line, a phrase, to be included in that document, it would be this: “A heart without hate is the true measure of development.”

Would the United Nations accept such language? I don't know. But how long can it survive if it won't?

Edward Mulholland writes from New York.