Dont waste Cairos gains on population issues
By ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER
Most Americans probably have little recollection of the United Nations Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994. Yet this conference and its Program of Action are viewed by many as a paradigm shift in the way issues of global population are addressed.
In previous U.N. conferences (Bucharest, Romania, 1974, and Mexico City, 1984), the approach was primarily demographic and economic. Population was seen as a "problem" of rising numbers, particularly among poor nations, to be curbed. Development was defined by industrialism and rising gross national product.
The Cairo conference challenged these approaches. The needs of people, particularly the poorest, must be central to development, not a rising gross national product that may only reflect growing wealth for the rich. Development must also be ecologically sustainable, not steadily impoverishing the regenerative capacity of the earth.
Eradication of poverty and just sharing of development among all people must also challenge overconsumption by wealthy nations and classes. There must be particular concern for vulnerable populations, for children, especially girls, migrants, refugees and indigenous peoples.
For the first time, concerns for population were located in the context of womens human rights. Instead of treating women simply as objects of population policy, women must be addressed as human moral agents of reproduction in their own right, in partnership with men. Key to population reduction is a broad social development of women, incorporation into full and equal educational and employment opportunities and participation in family and community decisions. Coercion in family planning, either for or against, was firmly rejected in favor of a plurality of contraceptive options in the framework of womens and family health.
Abortion was not recommended as a means of family planning, although abortion should be safe where legally available. It was recognized that criminalizing abortion does not reduce recourse to it but rather assures that it will be unsafe and will cause high levels of maternal injury and death. Cairo called for abortion to be safe but also for the need for abortion to be reduced through sexual education and family planning.
The Vatican delegation, in alliance with conservative Muslims, distinguished itself at the Cairo conference by standing against these principles of womens rights to reproductive agency, a plurality of methods of contraception and safe abortion.
The "Cairo Plus Five" process refers to a review of the implementation of the Cairo program that the United Nations is undertaking through meetings in The Hague, Netherlands, Feb. 8-12, and in New York March 22-30 and June 30-July 2. One point of contention is the failure of the United States to provide the funding promised in Cairo five years ago.
There is a danger, however, that the review will focus only on funding, or on how many family planning centers have been created. In short, the review could slip back to the numbers game and ignore the significant shift to a women- and people-centered value orientation. Moreover, the religious voice may be present, as it was in Cairo, only to attack the emphasis on womens reproductive agency.
Several new networks have been founded in recent months in an effort to ensure that other voices will be heard. One is Catholic Voices, an international network of Catholic ethicists and activists who met in Mexico City in 1998. Catholic Voices issued a study that evaluated the Cairo program as substantially in accord with the best of Catholic tradition and called on Catholics to support it.
In January 1999, an interfaith network of religious leaders from the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu traditions met in Rome to evaluate the program from the perspective of religious ethics. This group, calling itself Religion Counts, saw the program as in substantial accord with the best traditions of their heritages. While acknowledging that the worlds religions have often accepted and promoted the subjugation of women, this was seen as changing today as religions recognize that their principles of human rights must now include women equally.
These two groups, Catholic Voices and Religion Counts, plan to be active in The Hague and New York conferences. They hope to bring together two concerns: first, speaking on behalf of the ethical principles in the Cairo program, so they are not lost in a reversion to mere numbers and funding; and second to make the voices of progressive Catholics and other people of faith heard in U.N. deliberations, which have heretofore been dominated only by the negative voices of conservative spokesmen.
Religion Counts is cosponsored by the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics in Chicago, and Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington. Both the Rome declaration of Religion Counts and the Mexico City study, Catholics and Cairo, are available through Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington.
Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.
National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999