The Pontiff has mobilised legions of priests, nuns and lay people to oppose a draft agreement on stabilising population growth because of his opposition to artificial birth control and abortion. A UN summit in Cairo next month aimed at taking action to stabilise world population growth is already turning into an ugly confrontation between the Catholic Church, which sees itself as a beacon of traditional values, and a broad coalition including the European Union, the Clinton administration, and a spectrum of feminists and environmentalists.
The Holy See has no vote at the UN, but it has full diplomatic status and its diplomats are as skilled as the representatives of large powers at influencing international policies. They have proven particularly adept at working the corridors of the UN to lean on governments and in orchestrating a full-scale propaganda onslaught on the draft UN population agreement.
The Vatican has gone on the offensive against countries which have attempted to drop an agreement that abortion is not an accepted method of family planning. The US State Department points out that half a million women die every year from pregnancy-related causes, the vast majority in the developing world. More than 100 million women in the developing world want to avoid or postpone pregnancy but do not have access to modern contraceptives.
Between 50 and 60 million abortions are performed each year, nearly half of them illegal and often unsafe, according to US figures. President Clinton's policy, and increasingly that of Western governments, is that abortion should be 'safe, legal and rare,' but this has infuriated the Vatican.
The Pope has ordered senior emissaries from the Curia (the Vatican's foreign service) to persuade government leaders to tear up the UN's blueprint for dealing with the world's population crisis between now and the year 2015.
The world's population of 5.7 billion could reach 10 billion within 20 years on present trends, bringing more poverty, environmental destruction and conflict over scarce resources to an already overcrowded planet, experts predict. The proposals before the UN conference next month aim to stabilise the population at 7.2 billion by the year 2050, but the Vatican is determined to block consensus, fearing that the proposals will open the door to abortion on demand.
In fact, the UN's Action Programme on population as drafted does not endorse abortion, and says at one point that 'governments should take appropriate steps to help women avoid abortion'. It does encourage the use of reliable and safe contraceptive methods, however, and the Vatican sees the conference as a challenge to the Church's doctrine on the sanctity of life and the family.
The Pope's campaign is the most ferocious in recent memory and is distracting governments from the urgent need to agree on ways to bring the world's population under control. Lisa Bates, of the Overseas Development Council in the US, says the Pope's actions are wrecking an emerging consensus on population measures through 'an artificially created controversy over abortion'.
Governments have dropped the old emphasis on population and family planning programmes and come around to the Catholic Church's way of thinking on many aspects of population control, she said. They now agree that over- population is closely related to poverty in the Third World and the low economic status of women as well as over-consumption and waste in the industrialised north.
The belief that if enough contraceptive pills and condoms were distributed in the Third World, population growth would stop is no longer fashionable. The nightmare scenario of an annual growth of the world's population of 90 million, an increase of 170 per minute, is still with us.
An overcrowded planet will add to the enormous problems of pollution and put intolerable strains on natural resources. The risk of conflict between nations will grow, population experts say, as the growth of food production slows due to soil erosion, air and water pollution, over-grazing and deforestation. Without radical changes, the billion malnourished people in the world will be joined by many more, creating global economic and political instability.
The controversy created by the Pope masks an unprecedented degree of consensus between the Church and that of population experts. Over the past decade thinking on population problems has coalesced in a way that brings together women's groups, environmentalists and the family planning community.
It is now widely accepted that population will not be brought under control unless the benefits of economic development are spread from the wealthy North to the impoverished South, and unless women in the Third World are empowered through education and economic well-being. Population experts, feminists and even the Catholic Church agree that family planning must also be used in the context of reproductive health rather than birth control per se.
Francis Kissling, who heads the US group Catholics for a Free Choice, challenged the Pope's policies yesterday, saying: 'The church hierarchy are so blinded by abortion that it is impossible for them to see anything else. The Pope is now a major obstacle to the implementation of the existing consensus, which is the only way to solve population growth.'
The Vatican remains unimpressed by these arguments and has continued to lambast the positions taken by European countries and the US, accusing them of promoting abortion on demand and homosexuality.
The Pope has also blasted the European Parliament for passing a resolution this year that supports the rights of homosexuals to marry and adopt children, saying that was asking that 'a moral disorder' be legitimised.
Cardinal John O'Connor of New York has led the attack on the West, accusing the EU and the Clinton administration of 'cultural imperialism' in promoting a birth control culture.
'Thou shalt not kill,' the Pope said last Sunday, 'is as valid for the embryo as for individuals who are already born.'
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