Maternal- and infant-mortality rates in the United States have decreased dramatically this century with the development of modern obstetrics and improvements in health care for women. Not so, however, in the developing world: Anemia, malaria, obstructed labor when giving birth, hemorrhage, postpartum infection and lack of trained medical professionals are the major causes of maternal mortality. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, or WHO, 15 children die every minute as a result of disease and malnutrition.
The United Nations long has been concerned about these issues and has tied them to population control and economic development. At the end of June, a special session of the U.N. General Assembly will meet in New York to review implementation of the action program of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development. The U.N. Population Fund (previously known as the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, or UNFPA) is the sponsoring U.N. secretariat. The conference document recommended global policies on world population, development, migration, gender equality, empowerment of women, access to family planning and reproductive health care.
Surprisingly, 179 countries signed off on the original action program. Not surprisingly, five years later, not all are happy with the implementation.
Critics claim the likely report to the U.N. General Assembly concentrates on procreative rights and birth control for the poorer countries instead of economic development. Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on labor as capital, says, "I have not been sympathetic to the UNFPA and those who believe in antipopulation growth. Every country in the history of the world, without exception, has reduced its birth rate through education and economic growth."
There is concern that the United Nations is engaged in population-control polemics without regard to economic development. For instance, "The whole tenor of the negotiations appears to be long on population control and short on development," says Jeanne Head, chief U.N. lobbyist for the International Right to Life Foundation. "In the review document, the term `reproductive health' is listed 57 times, where `basic health' is in there only three times." According to UNFPA data, many women in developing countries have access to birth control but lack access even to clean water. In Haiti, 81 percent have access to contraception, whereas only 28 percent have access to safe water. In mountainous Nepal, 95 percent have access to contraception, but only 44 percent have clean water.
Pro-life groups say that the proposed language of the review document is too broad and that some countries will misinterpret "reproductive rights" or "health" to mean abortion or forced sterilization. Kathryn Balmforth, a civil-rights attorney and a member of NGO Family Voice, a pro-family organization based at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, warns: "There is an attempt to turn reproductive rights into human rights [as listed in the U.N. Charter on Human Rights, giving the U.N. authority over international intimacies]. There also is a persistent push to give autonomous rights for children," reducing the authority of parents.
Ingar Brueggeman, director of International Planned Parenthood Federation, or IPPF, in London says that reproductive rights indeed are human rights: "Even if some parents don't want the children to know about sexual rights, we should use any means we can to get information out. They should be spared the misery of having too many children." WHO defines adolescence as starting at age 10, at which time "adolescent reproductive rights" may kick in to establish the authority of the state over that of the parents.
In IPPF's sexual-rights charter, the "right to freedom of thought," requires that "all persons should have access to education and information related to their sexual and reproductive health free from all restrictions on grounds of thought, conscience and religion. …