The Cairo Legacy

September 26, 1994

For all the time and attention devoted to abortion at the recent United Nations conference in Cairo, the more significant news centered on the vast amount of agreement about issues related to population and the health and welfare of families.

These discussions have come a long way from the days when alarmists warned darkly of a need to control an exploding population and everyone else yawned. Now, most people who analyze demographic trends, as well as living conditions and economic prospects around the world, agree that stabilizing population growth sooner rather than later will make it easier to improve the lives of millions of people living in utter poverty.

Meanwhile, talk of "controlling" population has given way to a more enlightened -- and more effective -- approach which recognizes that when people are given the means to make choices, they will usually make sound ones. When couples have access to safe, reliable contraceptives, they will generally have smaller families because they choose to do so, not because of government fiat.

And when parents, particularly women, have access to other benefits -- health care, education, economic opportunity and the like -- even better things happen. More children survive infancy, they are healthier, better able to take advantage of education and more likely to prosper in life. The notion of empowering women builds on solid evidence that when mothers thrive, so do their families.

Those themes -- making family planning available worldwide and giving women the power to make decisions about their own lives -- were the central message of Cairo, and its chief legacy. For the majority of delegates, debates about abortion were largely irrelevant. Abortion enters into population discussions primarily as one of the developing world's more tragic health dilemmas: Because so many women are desperate to limit childbearing, each year a quarter-million mothers die painful deaths from the ,, effects of unsafe abortions.

The Cairo document is not binding on any country. But its themes of empowering families, particularly women, and giving couples the means to make responsible decisions clearly resonate across many cultural divides. In the end, perhaps the sound and fury about abortion and other aspects of reproductive politics did more to publicize the issues surrounding population growth than endless numbers of earnest policy discussions.

Unlike the U.N.'s gathering in Bucharest in 1974 and in Mexico City in 1984, the points of contention in Cairo were far outnumbered by vast areas of agreement. That point was underscored by the fact that, for the first time at a population conference, the Vatican, after duly noting its reservations, signed the final document to register its approval of many aspects of the Cairo legacy.

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