Population politics

September 07, 1994|By William Safire

Washington -- IF THERE has been one unequivocal campaign promise the Clinton-Gore administration has kept from the start, it is on a woman's right to choose abortion. That applies abroad, too: Clintonites have reversed 12 years of Reagan-Bush policies denying aid dollars to countries where abortion is included in birth control.

They promised and delivered; that's democracy. But then, in the run-up to the U.N. population conference in Cairo, Egypt, advocates of abortion rights went a bridge too far.

Trickily avoiding the A-word, U.S. Sherpas espoused a U.N. statement calling for governments to provide "reproductive rights" including "fertility regulation" and "pregnancy termination" throughout the world.

The Vatican wasn't fooled by these euphemisms, and cunningly enlisted Muslim fundamentalists to reject imposing "a current life style of certain opulent societies" on Third World nations.

It brings the battle out in the open. But then the Vatican went too far: not only did the pope's spokesman condescendingly refer to the U.S. government as "this administration," but he also publicly attacked Vice President Al Gore by name.

The pope's representative impugned the sincerity of Mr. Gore's conciliatory assertion that the United States did not seek an international right to abortion. In delivering that shot, the papal spokesman seemed to suggest that the second-highest official elected by Americans was a hypocrite.

That was a personal insult issued in the pope's name. Unless corrected, it will stand as unprecedented papal meddling in U.S. politics.

It's overreaching enough for a U.S. bishop to predict the political behavior of co-religionists, as Bishop James McHugh did Sunday with his warning of a "powerful incentive to American Catholics to walk away from the Democratic Party."

For the pope himself to permit his official spokesman to rail against any specific American political figure demeans the Vatican -- or "this papacy," as spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls might put it.

Reached by phone in Cairo on Sunday, Mr. Gore played it cool: "In dealing with those who are actually negotiating at this conference," he soothed, "I've found people to be constructive and conciliatory on both sides."

He found Mr. McHugh "statesmanlike in saying, even though they will not accept the view that contraception is all right, nevertheless signaling they fully understand that if other organizations wish to make condoms available, they won't strenuously object."

Understandably, after feminists, greens and redistributionists got carried away, Mr. Gore has been shifting the focus away from abortion to contraception, and then to a wider area of agreement: education and equality for women. Let's hope he can; Perdita Huston's seminal 1979 book, "Third World Women Speak Out," showed that to be a key to family stability.

My objection to the new Malthusians is their insistence that crowding is the obstacle to economic growth and individual advancement. Hong Kong and Taiwan show that to be as untrue as Thomas Malthus' predictions of world starvation two centuries ago. As nations get richer and people get educated, families get smaller.

Conservatives who put individual freedom first can embrace that quartet. The danger comes from the gender-agenda coercionaries over-populating global conferences who would make governments the levelers of nations and bureaucrats the makers of family decisions.

The Vatican did well to blow the whistle on the power grab of the new Malthusians; the result is the creative tension of open debate. And moral instruction by preachers has a traditional place in politics.

But the pope should tell his arrogant spokesman that he harmed the anti-abortion cause by getting politically mean.

William Safire is a syndicated columnist.

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