A great defeat for the Vatican

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The Independent Online
THE CAIRO conference on population and development has been, on the whole, a success. Other writers whom I respect take a different view. Robert Fisk, writing from Cairo in this newspaper on Tuesday, referred to 'a gathering which might one day turn out to have been a betrayal rather than a symbol of hope for millions of women in the region'. Colm Boland in the Irish Times raised the question of whether 'the Cairo conference had produced a monumental fudge magnificent only in the multiplication of its escape clauses and opt-outs'.

I was not at Cairo but I would not have been disappointed if I had been. International conferences always fudge a lot of things, and the fudging will always be regarded as betrayal by those who feel most strongly about the issues involved. These things are in the nature of international conferences, made up as they are of human beings who deal with their differences in this way at times when they do not feel disposed to deal with them by war.

All the same, while invariably many people feel betrayed, those with some particular interests feel more betrayed than those with others. It is in this way that shifts in world opinion get registered. The Cairo conference undoubtedly registers such a shift, in favour of family planning - a topic avoided as far as possible at earlier conferences (including the Rio conference on the environment, which swept the population of the world under the rug). By contrast, the following propositions in the guidelines of the final Cairo document seem to me remarkably unfudged:

'People have reproductive rights which include the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children.'

'All countries should strive to make accessible, through the primary health-care system, reproductive health to all, including family planning counselling and services.'

The guideline on abortion bears some trace of compromise, but on the whole also remains remarkably unfudged, especially considering that this was by far the most contentious issue before the conference and occupied most of its time. This was almost entirely because of a rearguard action by the Vatican, tepidly supported by some Islamic countries.

This is the guideline that emerged, through the pressure:

'Governments should help women avoid abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning, and in all cases provide for the humane treatment and counselling of women who have recourse to abortion. They should deal with unsafe abortion as a major public health concern. Where abortion is not against the law, it should be safe.'

By all previous standards, this set of guidelines represents a remarkably clear-cut outcome for an international conference in respect of controversial issues. It was a complete victory for one principle never before overtly conceded: the provision by all countries of family planning counselling and services. Previously, even the issue of funding to disseminate information on these matters had been pushed to one side because it was distasteful to the Vatican.

At Cairo, the Vatican had to concentrate all its efforts on the fight against abortion, and even there the final outcome represents a major defeat for it. The stipulation that abortion 'in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning' was miserable compensation to the Vatican for the wreck itself: the final document's endorsement of the distinction between 'safe' and 'unsafe' abortion. That distinction is anathema to the Vatican and the whole pro-life lobby.

There have been clear winners and losers at Cairo. The head of the Vatican delegation, Archbishop Renato Martino, acknowledged the magnitude of his delegation's defeat compared with the outcome of the last two international conferences on population: 'The final (Cairo) document, as opposed to earlier documents of the Bucharest (1974) and Mexico City (1984) conferences, recognises abortion as a dimension of population policy and, indeed, of primary health care.'

Those who think that nothing much happened at Cairo should ponder the implications of that acknowledgement. Archbishop Martino went on to accept defeat with a certain melancholy grace, in a retrospective generalisation: 'My delegation has now been able to evaluate the document (Cairo final report) in its entirety . . . On this occasion the Holy See wishes in some way to associate itself with the consensus, even in an incomplete or partial manner.'

That statement brought to my mind two lines by a heartbroken Victorian poet accepting an invitation to a party: 'Suffer me at your feast/To sit apart, a somewhat alien guest'.

Cairo is the greatest diplomatic defeat the Vatican has sustained in the 20th century. It is now outside - while wishing 'in some way to associate itself with' - an international consensus over which it previously exercised a powerful and often even a predominant influence: the consensus over sexual and reproductive ethics.

The Vatican lost totally over contraception, without even putting up a fight. It lost almost totally over abortion after a long and tedious debate in which it antagonised most of the other participants.

There are many reasons why the Vatican lost at Cairo but foremost was the change in position of the United States. Reagan and Bush had been deferential to the Vatican's agenda; Clinton is not. And Clinton was tougher than the Vatican seems to have expected. Since November 1992, American politicians have realised that the 'pro-choice' people represent more votes, though less decibels, than the 'pro-life' people.

If US influence is thrown heavily on one side of a given question in a disputed issue in an international forum, that side tends to prevail. Cairo was no exception. The Vatican's attempt to play the Islamic card against Washington was a dismal failure, unlikely to be repeated. The next Pope will have a lot of reassessment to do.

A number of regimes will ignore the Cairo recommendations. But wherever these issues are in debate, Cairo will hearten those who demand the right of access to contraception and safe abortion. Cairo deserves, therefore, to be hailed as a limited but significant victory for the Enlightenment against its enemies in the modern world.

(Photograph omitted)