Opportunity in Cairo

September 03, 1994

There is considerable irony in the fact that as nations around the world have steadily moved toward consensus on matters related to reproductive health and freedom, dissident voices are attempting to paint this widespread agreement as coercive imperialism. If they are right, then it is a coercion arrived at with remarkable ease. As the United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development convenes in Cairo this Monday, only about 10 percent of the language in the draft "Program of Action" is in dispute.

It is one measure of the dissent that one of the terms in dispute is "safe motherhood," because the Vatican -- represented at the conference both as a religious institution and as a state with diplomatic recognition -- fears that the term could be construed to imply support of abortion. Despite the fears of the Vatican and its allies, this conference is not about abortion, and certainly not about coercion. The document does not mention growth targets or even discredited terms like "population control," largely because those concepts are at odds with the respect for individual dignity that the document upholds.

Beyond that consideration, those who have worked in family planning programs can attest to the fact that "targets" and "controls" simply are not an effective way of stabilizing rates of population growth. The Cairo conference focuses instead on more immediate goals -- improving access to contraceptives and reproductive health care, reducing maternal and infant mortality, educating and empowering women, reducing poverty, achieving sustainable development and a more equitable distribution of the world's resources.

Behind those goals lies widespread agreement that the only realistic way of achieving population stability is by improving living conditions of people around the world, a goal that includes giving them control over their own fertility. Enemies of the Cairo conference dispute the demand for contraceptives, but the evidence suggests that millions of women and men are eager, even desperate, for reliable means of preventing pregnancy. One telling fact is the millions -- 50 to 60 million by one estimate -- of abortions performed around the world each year, many of them so unsafe that 250,000 women die annually.

Unless people are given that freedom, we can look forward to a world far more crowded than today. In 1994, world population stands at 5.6 billion, and growing at the rate of 90 million each year. Most of that growth is coming in countries already too poor to feed the people they have.

Cairo, then, is about much more than demography. Above all, it is about giving people the opportunity to improve their lives and to salvage a future for their children.

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