The Road to Cairo

August 28, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Be fruitful and multiply . . .

In an otherwise sorry performance, that's one Biblical injunction the human race has fulfilled abundantly. In the year 1 A.D., there were about 200 million people living on Earth. It took another 18 1/2 centuries for world population to reach 1 billion. But by mid-1993, that number had multiplied to 5.5 billion and was growing by 90 million people a year.

As the nations of the world prepare to gather in Cairo next month for the United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development, there is remarkable consensus that giving families - especially women - the means to control the number and spacing of their children is good. It's good not only for the health and economic prospects of children and parents, but it's also essential if human beings are going to strike an equitable balance with the planet's ability to support them.

That wide consensus is reflected in the fact that the document drafted for the conference has less than 10 percent of its language in brackets, which indicate disputed language. Any conference of this scope that begins with 90 percent agreement well on the way to a strong consensus.

Not, however, if the Vatican can help it. People who have worked in family planning and development programs are accustomed to papal opposition to contraceptives and abortion. But many of them say the vehemence of the campaign the Vatican is waging against the Cairo meeting goes far beyond the church's customary level of opposition to contraception and abortion.

Indeed, Pope John Paul II seems singularly heated about this conference, so much so that the Vatican has embraced some strange bedfellows - including Iran's radical Islamic government and a number of fundamentalist Islamic groups. That's a volatile mix, one that even some of its friends see as a political blunder for the Vatican. Whether it will be an effective alliance remains to be seen.

Here's what the Vatican is up against: A generation ago, only a handful of countries gave serious thought to population projections. Today, more than 100 governments have adopted policies to promote population stabilization. Population policies and family planning programs are no longer seen by poor countries as imperialist notions imposed on them by the developed world, but rather as sensible ways of keeping their governments from being overwhelmed by sheer numbers as they attempt to provide food, clothing, shelter, education and economic opportunity for their citizens.

Twenty years ago it would have been relatively easy for the Vatican to persuade governments that family planning programs were imperialistic impositions on native cultures. Today, a number of developing countries, including Catholic countries like Mexico and Colombia, have successful and self-sustaining family planning programs.

But the Vatican's attack goes beyond contraception and abortion. What really seems to offend the pope is the draft document's emphasis on providing all women access to

reproductive health care services. "All women," of course, includes women who are not legally married. The Vatican sees the document as cleverly advocating not just abortion but also promiscuity.

Meanwhile, around the world, millions of women and men are eager for access to a range of contraceptive services to control their fertility. The Vatican's dark warnings about the dangers of abortion and promiscuity don't ring true, especially in a world where 250,000 women die each year from the effects of unsafe abortions. As for promiscuity, ask a woman whether natural family planning - the birth control method advocated by the Vatican - is adequate when her husband threatens to visit a prostitute if she refuses to have sex anytime he chooses.

The Vatican wants to play this game both ways. As a religious institution, it seeks moral influence over matters it cares deeply about. And as a religious institution, it should exercise moral authority over its members and anyone else it can convert to its views.

But the Vatican doesn't stop there. Unlike other religious groups, it goes to Cairo as a recognized state, a colleague at the table of nations. In that role, it is fighting fiercely to impose on other states its own views of appropriate sexual and reproductive behavior.

What is that if not imperialism?

The Vatican's fury obscures another fact: Leaders in many of the world's religions - including many Christian and Muslim leaders - have endorsed the goals of the Cairo conference, especially its aims of educating and empowering women.

Despite its well-orchestrated campaign, the Vatican clearly nTC represents a minority view. It's time now for leaders around the world to stand up and say so.

Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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