The Politics of Population

September 07, 1994

Whatever succeeds or fails to materialize at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, most of the peoples of the Earth are represented in one room where their common future is being charted.

That is a staggering achievement after the chaotic and fragmented history of the human race up to this point. It is less a development willed by fore-sighted leaders than an inevitable response to the shrinkage of the planet due to population growth and resource depletion -- plus the advent of instantaneous worldwide communication.

Some of the alliances, disputes and side issues are momentous.

There are governments dedicated to policies of controlling population, such as Egypt and the Philippines, in conflict with their own religious authorities. The Catholic Church finds itself in lock-step with the Islamic theologians opposing birth control and condemning abortion, raising the possibility of a previously unthinkable ecumenical breakthrough to add to the Vatican's dialogues with Protestant Christians and with Jews.

There is President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt who wanted to host the conference to show off the stability of his country and regime, only to demonstrate the opposite as extremists threatened the same terror against delegates they have inflicted on tourists. Some Islamic regimes stayed away.

There is the ultimate Western feminism and environmentalism expressed by Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway.

And an astounding expression of women's rights to control such matters as childbearing, expressed by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, braving the wrath of clerics in her own country to attend, combined with a forceful denunciation of abortion startling to many of her Western admirers.

The seriousness of the U.S. effort, led by Vice President Al Gore, to pass a meaningful document that will frame policy for world organizations, contrasts with the previous indifference of the predecessor Reagan and Bush administrations to the issue. The effort of Mr. Gore to cut a deal with the Vatican, to craft a document both can accept, testifies to the seriousness of the Clinton administration purpose in risking Catholic disapproval, and of the Vatican in trying to influence proceedings rather than just denounce them.

The holding of such a conference with 90 percent of its final document agreed beforehand is no doubt its most significant result. But the suspense attending the other 10 percent is justified. The resulting compromise, if any, is likely to influence world development for decades.

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