The Holy See at Cairo: What the Catholic Hierarchy Did at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development

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"THIS IS REALLY A CONFERENCE life styles," said Monsignor Diarmuid Martin, "And when talking about life styles in the future of the society we have a lot to say." Most people who were in Cairo for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICED) thought that they were discussing women's lives, not just their lifestyles. The lives of the half-million pregnant women who die every year, for example, many of whom didn't want to be pregnant in the first place.

On the other hand, the church hierarchy certainly did say a great deal before, during and after the conference; but the church's influence is another matter.

It isn't perhaps surprising that Msgr. Martin (now, for his sins, the archbishop of Dublin and primate of Ireland) should want to emphasize lifestyle issues. The hierarchy has historically cast itself as the great bulwark of the family against the onrushing tide of secularism and sexual license. To the hierarchy, the family means children, lots of them. The hierarchy also has rigorously opposed abortion, taking a life-begins-at-conception approach. A corollary is that the life of the "unborn child," from a collection of a few cells to a full-term fetus, takes precedence over the life of the woman in whom it is growing, every time.

The extraordinary 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, with its total ban on artificial methods of contraception, also plays an important role in this story. The historian Garry Wills, who is a Catholic, believes that defense of the document now forms the intellectual bedrock on which the church is founded, so that it is simply impossible to revisit this teaching (see for example his book "Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit" and his review article "High Fidelity" in the New York Review of Books on Dec. 5, 2002). According to Wills, nearly all Catholics ignore the Vatican's teachings on contraception and (to a lesser extent) on abortion.

The collision between papal authority and the real world has never been clearer than at ICPD. Of course it could be said that United Nations conferences hardly represent the real world either--but this one featured 10,000 official delegates from 179 countries (or 180 counting the Holy See--more on that later), 4,000 people from 1,500 NGOS and another 4,000 journalists. It was the culmination of two years of preparations, including five regional conferences and two full-dress preparatory committees, which produced various recommendations and drafts of the proposed Programme of Action.

In a sense the ICPD was the end product of 20 years of debate, including two previous world conferences, innumerable smaller meetings and a great deal of work on the ground. In United Nations terms, or maybe even human ones, that isn't long. The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, only exists because back in 1970 no other part of the United Nations would touch population with a bargepole. It might involve family planning and that meant controversy. Back then many, even most, UN member states viewed family planning with a very dubious eye. After the word population in their minds came the word control--a policy various (mostly Western) deep thinkers were advocating at the time. In their minds the word that came after population was explosion, something that happened only in developing countries (rather than say, Florida, where population growth in the 1970s approached 4 percent a year, much faster than any developing country).

By 1994, the whole picture had changed. Nearly every country in the world except Saudi Arabia promoted or at least permitted family planning. Thanks in good part to VNFPA'S leader, Naris Sadik, and the growing strength of civil society, especially the women's movement, the emphasis of international discussion had moved from demographic policy to health policy, with women at its centre. The term reproductive health came into wide use in the 1980s, to describe the package of health measures including family planning that women need to avoid unwanted pregnancy, ensure safe motherhood and protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections. …