After long standoff, Vatican retreats on abortion wording in population plan

September 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

CAIRO, Egypt -- The Vatican gave up its struggle yesterday to significantly weaken language on abortion in a United Nations plan to stabilize population growth, clearing the way for delegates to draft a compromise recognizing that abortions are performed worldwide.

After a five-day standoff, delegates to the International Conference on Population and Development approved a paragraph stating that abortions "should be safe" in countries where the practice is legal.

It was a significant setback for the Vatican, which had argued that there is no such thing as a "safe" abortion because it results in the death of a human life.

In a statement read by a spokesman, Monsignor Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican delegation said it was abandoning its maneuvers over the paragraph's wording because "it does not wish to prolong the present discussion."

It said the church would formally register its objections to parts of the passage when the document is adopted by the full conference Tuesday.

The issue of abortion, forced to the forefront by the Vatican, has tied up the conference for nearly a week as the Vatican sought to excise any language suggesting that abortion was a woman's right.

Some delegates saw the five-day delay in itself as an achievement of sorts for church officials. But for many, the Vatican's stance ultimately suggested that it was out of touch with many of its own followers.

Many conference delegates said the Vatican seriously miscalculated its potential clout in the debate, especially among Catholic women and among governments of developing Catholic countries and Islamic governments to which it had appealed for support.

"The Catholic women of the world do not buy into statements from the elderly celibate clergy," said Dr. Allan Rosenfield, dean of the School of Public Health at Columbia University, who is attending the conference.

In a compromise intended to assure the paragraph's approval, the delegates reversed the order of two sentences but changed none of the wording.

As a result of the change negotiated earlier this week, the paragraph now begins with the sentence, "In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning."

In its statement, the Vatican welcomed that affirmation. It also sought to emphasize that it, too, recognized that safety was an issue in the abortion debate.

"The Holy See recognizes the seriousness of the question of maternal death and the dangers to health connected with abortion, and endorses those aims of paragraph 8.25 which address this matter from the point of view of women's health," it said. "It endorses the need to provide quality medical care for the complications arising from abortion."

The Vatican statement added, "For moral reasons, shared by citizens of many nations," it does not endorse legal abortion.

U.S. officials said they were pleased with the conciliatory tone of the address, even though it withheld specific approval of the abortion policy. Afterward, U.S. delegation chief Timothy Wirth went to personally congratulate the Vatican delegate on his remarks.

U.S. delegation chief Timothy Wirth, under secretary of state for global affairs, said that the Vatican was "benign" in the final round. "I think that this is the kind of consensus that you like to come to," he said. "They don't agree with everything in there, and neither do we."

"Almost everything is now done," Mr. Wirth said, predicting that other divisive issues including adolescent sexuality and contraception might be wrapped up as early as today.

A small working group of the 160 countries at the conference moved on to the difficult issues of defining reproductive health and reproductive rights.

The final conference document is intended to establish guidelines for population stabilization over the next two decades. Religious conservatives had objected strongly not only to the document's references to abortion but to its emphasis on women's rights.

Representatives of several health organizations and women's groups greeted the new passage's recognition that abortion is a public health hazard if procedures are unsafe.

"I'm very happy because it defines unsafe abortion clearly as a public health problem," said Joan Dunlop, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, a New York-based organization that helps women's health organizations in the developing world. "It means we can go to countries and say, 'This is a public health problem, how can we help you with it?' That's very important."

ABORTION PARAGRAPH

The final text of the abortion paragraph approved Friday:

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