Exporting a new imperialism

Are we really in a position to export our wisdom on how to handle the results of the sexual revolution?
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The Independent Culture
IF THE Vatican was as influential as it likes to think it is, then there would be no reason for Clare Short to have launched her stinging attack on its attitudes to global family planning earlier this week. If "Catholic countries" really were teeming with devout Catholics then there would not only be no "unnatural" family planning and no abortion in them, but also no sex before marriage, no infidelity and no divorce.

But the world is not like that, and it is certainly about time that the Catholic church faced up to this. Women seeking contraception or abortion have already spurned the advice of the Holy See, and the Vatican's desire, having failed to provide the kind of moral leadership it would prefer, to impose moral strictures by hijacking the machinery of the state is wrong. Every sexual rule that the Catholic Church holds dear is against the grain of the mores of our time. To stubbornly insist that we should all carry on as if this were not the case, is reprehensible.

Short's most telling criticism of the Catholic Church is her condemnation of its oppostion to the prescription of the morning-after pill to Kosovan rape victims. She describes this as "a profoundly disgusting position", and asserts that the whole of international opinion is behind her. There can surely be no more telling example of the almost mediaeval fundamentalism of the Papacy than this, no more crushing denial of the right of a woman to choose, and no more graphic an illustration of the pitilessness of this most misogynistic of boys' clubs.

But Short does not confine her attack to the attitude of the church to such extreme cases. In a sweeping broadside during a Guardian interview, she declares that "The Holy See is in an unholy alliance with reactionary forces deeply unholy. My church is playing a deeply obstructive role where, if it had its way, a million people would get the HIV virus, there would be more and more unwanted pregnancies, more and more illegal abortions, more and more mothers dying as a result of illegal abortions. That is the position they are trying to work for. And it's a morally destructive course."

Her remarks came on the eve of Cairoplus5, the follow-up meeting in New York which was convened by the United Nations general assembly to assess the progress made since 1994's conference in Egypt. This landmark meeting, despite the objections of the Vatican, established women's worldwide right to contraception advice, sex education and safe abortion.

Short's fear is that the Vatican will manage to derail this agreement and in order to combat this she has come out with all guns blazing. Unsurprisingly, her attack on the Catholic establishment has provoked an aggressive reaction from her Conservative shadow Gary Streeter. He says that she must apologise to "millions of evangelicals, Catholics and Moslems who do not support abortion," and goes on to say that "through the idea of abortion rights for all and contraception rights for very young children, the United Nations is launching a new form of politically correct imperialism."

Of course Short does not have to apologise to evangelicals, Catholics and Moslems. She is not denying their right not to resort to either contraception or abortion. Unlike them she is not suggesting that everyone should behave in accordance with her beliefs. It is difficult to see what can be gained by denying a condom to a sexually active woman in a country where there is an Aids epidemic and it's impossible to see what can be gained from driving a woman with an unwanted child to an illegal abortionist.

But at the same time there is something of the ring of truth in the phrase "politically correct imperialism". Because there really is a message here that says "do as we say, not as we do". I can't help wondering if Britain really is in a position to export its wisdom on how to handle the burgeoning results of the worldwide sexual revolution. Have we really handled it all so well that we have become world leaders in family planning?

Only a few weeks ago the UN shipped its roving ambassador Geri Halliwell out to the Philippines to provide moral leadership on family planning to this nation where unmarried mothers are far more common than English speakers. Her speech was reported as baffling to most of the confused crowd who had gathered to see this woman they had not heard of, and it is difficult to imagine that her trip would have done much good even without the attack mounted by the Vatican for her promotion of "immoral methods of birth control".

This same Geri Halliwell had been mooted a couple of months before her visit, as a "role model" for young British girls. The suggestion was widely derided in this country, and faded away sharpish. Why on earth she should then be considered a role model for yound Filippino girls is something of a mystery.

But the concept of Geri Halliwell, Role Model is not the only one which doesn't work at home but is expected to work abroad.

Today's news that Britain's children are among the unhealthiest in Europe, with a record on babies born underweight that is matched by Albania, is yet more evidence that widely available contraception and abortion does not necessarily lead to planned families and orderly population control. The Catholic Church definitely doesn't have the right idea about how we promote happy families. But neither do we.

What initiatives will we be exporting next, I wonder? Prison sentences for tardy fathers? Benefit cuts for single mothers? Since the liberalisation of British family planning has impacted most disatrously on the poor of this country, doesn't that suggest that the potential for mayhem in the third world is even greater?

In this country it is by now indisputable that the vulnerable, the young and the poor are least likely to harness contraception to plan their families and least likely to resort to abortion when the result of that failure is a pregnancy. Now the BMA confirms that the children of these parents become even more vulnerable, condemned to ill-health from the moment of their conception. While it is possible to feel quite certain that the approach of the Catholic Church is wrong, it is not quite so easy to believe that the alternative we have to offer is right.

It seems more and more obvious that the main obstacle to family planning is poverty and ignorance, two conditions under which the Catholic Church has thrived in the past. We cannot get rid of ignorance without removing poverty first, and it is this that we should wish to lead and inspire the world with. While Clare Short is to be admired for her principled stand against the zealotry of the religion she was born into, we must bear in mind that her solution is very much a partial one, which will divide the world in much the same way as it is dividing Britain. While it is important to establish a woman's right to plan her family it is important to recognise as well that this does not mean that the right will be taken up.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church would do well to reflect on its failures, instead of moving further and further afield in its search for believers. Italy, the seat of the Catholic Church, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, as more and more women rebel against the strictures that have previously demanded that they breed as much as they can. Maybe it is the Italian attitude to procreation, the result of rebellion against the Holy See, that should be exported around the world. But only while its economy continues to boom.