by Bishop James T. McHugh
April 30, 1999
Five years ago, the United Nations sponsored a world conference in Cairo on Population and Development and adopted the Conference's final Plan of Action. This March, the UN attempted to formulate a report on how the 1994 plan is being implemented. After more than a week's discussion and debate, however, delegates left unable to complete the report. Why the difficulty in reaching a consensus?
Early agreement was that the March meeting, called a "preparatory meeting" (or "prep com") would be based on the Cairo Plan of Action and not create new proposals. The discussion was expected to focus more on development concerns than population concerns, and to recognize demographic changes and projections since 1994. What emerged, however, was a determination by some to focus instead on "sexual rights" and "reproductive rights" rather than development, to ignore demographic changes, and to push for proposals "beyond Cairo."
The terms sexual rights and reproductive rights were coined for Cairo and the following year's International Women's Conference held in Beijing. Yet these terms were never carefully defined, and in international lists of human rights, no such rights exist. There was general agreement about the need to ensure reproductive health--but that term became contentious because some had designed it to be a code term to include abortion. The Cairo conference rejected that interpretation, and said emphatically that abortion should not be encouraged or considered a method of family planning.
At the March prep com meeting, however, the United States and the European Union led a campaign to include provision of "emergency contraception," another vague term that would open the door to abortion. Proponents of emergency contraception, backed by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), claimed that this term means the use of high doses of birth control pills within 72 hours of sexual intercourse. High doses of the pill, however, can have different effects: it can prevent ovulation, prevent fertilization, or it can destroy a live embryo before it implants in the uterine wall. This last effect would terminate the life of a human being at the earliest stage of development and, clearly, would be abortifacient. While the majority of prep com delagates rejected inclusion of emergency contraception, pointing out that it went "beyond Cairo," the U.S. representative insisted that the committee, and ultimately the UN General Assembly, should try to break new ground.
The emphasis on reproductive rights brought new demands for expansion of sex education and contraceptive programs directed to adolescents and other unmarried persons. Concern for the rights of parents was brushed aside in favor of sexual freedom.
Let's look at some of the demographic factors that the prep com chose to disregard. Birth rates continue to decline in both developed and developing nations. In fact, by 2050 the number of people added to the world's population will decline from 81 million a year at present to 41 million a year. This decline in births, coupled with a decline in mortality, will mean smaller labor forces and fewer financial resources to provide for the elderly. The most affluent nations--e.g., Japan, the U.S. and Canada, and those in Western Europe--are already facing social security problems because their birthrates are below replacement level: rates of less than two children per family, and in some places, not quite one child. Aging is now the pressing concern for most countries--for as people live longer, there is an increased demand on resources, food, health care and security mechanisms.
Migration received little attention at the prep com. Yet this was a serious concern even before the bombing of Kosovo, which has abetted the dislocation of almost a million people, most into countries bordering Yugoslavia which were unprepared to shelter and care for them. The response of Planned Parenthood and the UNFPA to this serious situation was to send in truckloads of contraceptives and 350,000 emergency contraception kits.
The world has changed drastically, even in the past six weeks, and priorities have shifted to concerns about world peace and security. The Preparatory Committee will have to resume its work to come up with a reasonable report before the meeting of the UN General Assembly in June. Renegotiating the Cairo Plan of Action to make abortion and teen access to birth control a priority will be of no help to the General Assembly or to those around the world suffering unspeakably from violence and destruction.
Bishop James McHugh, who led the Holy See's delegation at the UN prep com, is Coadjutor Bishop of Rockville Centre, and a member of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.