Sacred and secular clash in Cairo: Sexual freedom and religion are at odds in the population debate - and myths are confusing the issues, writes Nicholas Schoon

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The Independent Online
IF YOU believe the advance billing, the Cairo population conference, starting today, will be quite a show.

This is the global face-off between the sacred and the secular; the occasion for the Vatican and Islamic fundamentalism to join forces to halt the Western tide of sexual liberation.

On the other hand, if you listen to the UN, this is the last, best chance to prevent a catastrophic global population explosion.

Whatever agreement emerges from the Egyptian capital will have no legal or executive force. The nine-day event is largely a talking shop. Ministers and heads of state will make speech after speech while hundreds of delegates haggle over a 'programme of action' on population and development for the next 20 years.

The 110-page draft text is packed with decent, sensible, but non- binding good intentions. If it succeeds, then the International Conference on Population and Development will put the great majority of nations on record as being serious about the rapid increase in the number of human beings the world is expected to sustain; it will commit them, rhetorically, to slowing population growth in humane and equitable ways.

In three preparatory conferences, the Holy See and eight supportive Catholic countries (mostly from Latin America) have fought to rid the text of anything which might endorse abortion or sex outside marriage. Resisting these evils has been given a higher priority than fighting references to contraception. Although it has no voting power in Cairo, the Vatican's 17- strong delegation will be among the largest attending.

The Pope objects to the overall tone of the draft text because he considers it over-emphasises individual sexuality and pays too little attention to couples and families. He said recently: 'In reality, what is at stake is the future of the family and of society itself.' His spokesman, Dr Joaquin Navarro- Valls, picks out one paragraph which says health services must safeguard adolescents' rights to privacy and confidentiality. That, he says, would take away the rights of parents to know if their teenagers were using contraceptives or had had abortions.

Mainly because of Vatican resistance, one tenth of the draft text is in parentheses - not accepted and awaiting further negotiation. The Holy See and its allies have put square brackets around more than 100 references to 'sexual health' and 'reproductive health' because, they believe, these terms could be taken as embracing abortion. In fact, elsewhere in the text, abortion is attacked as a method of determining family size.

The chief concern of the UN staff, who wrote the initial draft, is to condemn back-street abortions which kill scores of thousands of women each year in nations where the practice is outlawed. Nafis Sadik, the Pakistani woman doctor who is the conference's secretary-general, says that there is nothing in the text which endorses abortion on demand. 'Our reading of the document leads us to believe otherwise,' says Dr Navarro- Valls.

If the meandering text has any dominant theme, it is the need to give women more opportunities, through freedom from poverty, ignorance and oppression. It calls for better education for girls, an end to forced marriages, improved health care for mothers and babies, and access to family planning services and information. This, it argues, is the only just way to secure smaller family sizes.

Achieving all of this will be costly. There will be long hours of argument between rich and poor countries in Cairo over the bill. The draft text puts the sum at dollars 17bn ( pounds 11.3bn) a year in 2000, rising to dollars 20.5bn in 2010.

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