IS THE VATICAN joining Islamic fundamentalists to deny women
control over their bodies, or is Western imperialism trying to
dictate how the Third World will live?
Whatever the conclusion, the upcoming United Nations Conference
on Population and Development has set off a bitter dispute between
many Catholics and people who believe that women have the right to
Lost in the argument are many common points of agreement: that
economic development curtails population growth, for example, or
that coerced abortions such as those enforced by the Chinese
government are wrong.
The conference - scheduled to begin in Cairo, Egypt, on Sept. 5
- is a once-a-decade United Nations event to produce a plan for
reducing population growth. Estimates vary, but the 5.6 billion
people on the planet today are expected to swell to 8.5 billion by
For the Vatican and Catholic opponents in this country, the
conference is "Western imperialism" and a scheme to promote
abortions in underdeveloped nations. Some Catholic activists say
the conference's plan is to encourage homosexuality.
"We believe that the world is not presently overpopulated, nor
is there any likelihood that it is going to be in the near future,"
New Jersey Bishop James McHugh said earlier this month. "We believe
that reproductive health services for women are important and
valuable, but they should not include abortion."
The Holy See has won support from some fundamentalist
congregations in the United States. The governments of Honduras,
Guatemala, Nicaragua, Malta and Benin and reportedly authorities in
Libya support the papacy's position. Among the most militant of the
church's allies are Islamic fundamentalists, who argue that
proposals encouraging education about sexuality and reproduction
are actually intended to introduce indecency to Muslim society.
Last week a newspaper in Cairo published a front-page
photograph of a transvestite and a story saying the conference was
importing homosexual prostitutes.
The conference's written program talks much of helping women
attain economic and social equality with men as a way of curbing
population growth. And probably few people object to the program's
suggestion that the world ban child prostitution, coercive
sterilizations and rape as a political weapon.
But many of the 20,000 delegates to the conference do want
safe, legal abortions - the United States, along with organizations
representing Jews, Buddhists and Hindus - and that is diverting
attention from the plan's noncontroversial but clearly good
aspects. Vice President Al Gore said Thursday that although the
United States disagreed with the Vatican, nearly 90 percent of the
proposal already had found agreement.
"There is so much noise about the alliance of the Vatican and
Islam," said Joan Dunlop, president of the International Women's
Health Coalition. …