Catholics `have lost the birth control battle'

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The Independent Online
AS WORLD population hits six billion, the Catholic Church now realises it has lost its battle to stop artificial birth control methods being used around the globe, the head of the United Nations Population Fund, Dr Nafis Sadik, said yesterday.

It has given up trying to rewrite the UN's 20-year international population programme with the language of "natural methods" of contraception, Dr Sadik said in London, launching the UN's 1999 world population report, which reveals that the six billion figure will be hit in three weeks' time, on October 12.

Although the Holy See continues to spell out its opposition to the Pill and the condom, it now accepts the rights of other Governments, including those of Catholic countries, to decide what they wish to do, she said. Dr Sadik, a Pakistani who has headed the UN's population services for 12 years, said that even strongly Catholic countries such as Honduras or Malta now had family planning and sexual health programmes - "and the Church has let it go".

The UN was working with Catholic groups for sex education in many countries, often in clinics side by side. "Some of the nuns send people to the next- door clinic because they don't think the natural method is the most appropriate," she said. "This doesn't mean the Church at the top has changed its position. But what has been recognised is that the international community accepts family planning, contraception, sexual health and reproductive rights as part of the international agenda, and part of the basic human rights of women." Added to that, she said, the HIV and Aids pandemic in Southern Africa and elsewhere was leading the Church to think that condom use was going to increase, as it was being promoted in many sectors.

The Vatican's last serious attempt to fight artificial contraception on a global scale was at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. The ICPD set 20-year goals for women's education, reduction in infant mortality and access to a full range of family planning methods, the latter aim being resisted strongly by the Church. But at the 1999 review of the programme, the Holy See did not try to reopen the arguments, Dr Sadik said.

"They have given up trying to change the position in the UN," she said. "They always state at the end of the discussion that the Holy See retains its opposition, but they accept the right of all other governments to decide what they wish to do."

However, the Church was still implacably opposed to abortion, for any reason, which is now permitted in 119 countries, she said. Although it has taken just 12 years for the number of people crowding on to the planet to rise from five billion, reached in 1987, to next month's six, the rate of growth has now peaked, the report reveals, largely because of improved and more widely available education and health care in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In addition, reproduction rates and fertility levels are dropping all around the world.