UN Population Conference: Brundtland 'attack on faith' riles Iran

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The Independent Online
IRAN'S Health Minister yesterday demanded that part of Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's speech be struck from the record of the Cairo population conference. Mohammad Ali Tashkiri, head of Iran's delegation, told the United Nations gathering: 'The Norwegian Prime Minister should withdraw her phrase attacking religious beliefs. Religion is our whole life . . . this is the basis of the progress of humanity.'

His attack confirmed an image of the conference as a battleground between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism. But that image is becoming inaccurate, as days of nit-picking negotiations behind closed doors bring an agreement nearer on the need to slow birth rates and give women more rights.

When the conference closes on Tuesday, everyone expects that delegates from the 180 nations will have settled their differences. The one involving the legality of abortion remains the largest. There is a distinct possibility that the Vatican and fewer than 10 other nations will enter reservations, showing they do not agree with parts of the text. These are mostly Latin American and other Catholic countries, and could include Argentina, Ecuador and Malta. At the conference's opening this week, Mrs Brundtland said religion sometimes stood in the way of family planning. 'Morality becomes hypocrisy if it means mothers suffering or dying in connection with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions of unwanted children.'

The Iranian minister said abortion was rejected by all revealed religions and sex education should be reserved for those who were married or at the age of marriage. 'One should not overlook the dangerous implications of sexual education for those who are not at the age of marriage. We believe that . . . will lead to many unbearable social problems.' But, like most of the delegates from the developing world, he spoke proudly of the progress his country has made in lowering its annual population growth rate, in Iran's case from 3.7 per cent to 1.8 per cent, in less than 20 years. The conference has been held to agree on a 20- year plan of action.

If the nations deliver on their promises, couples will have access to contraception and advice on family planning, Third World death rates for infants and mothers will be slashed through better health care and women's education and literacy rates will greatly improve. But the likely price for family planning, maternal health and combatting Aids and sexually transmitted diseases will be spending dollars 17bn ( pounds 11bn) a year in developing nations, with the richer countries footing one third of the bill.

The Vatican delegation said education and health care for mothers and babies should have top priority. Baroness Chalker, Britain's Overseas Aid Minister, promised a 60 per cent increase in spending on family planning and health care for infants and expectant mothers overseas.

Britain today spends less than 3 per cent of its aid budget on these areas plus women's education. Lady Chalker said less would be spent on large infrastructure projects, such as dams and roads.