A holy alliance for the feminists

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The Independent Online
THIS YEAR may well go down in history as the one in which the world's political leaders began to take the population explosion seriously. The thought is prompted by a paragraph in a document submitted by the United States to the Final Preparatory Committee Meeting for the International Conference on Population and Development. The Final Preparatory Committee is now in session at United Nations headquarters in New York. The international conference, a decennial affair, will open in Cairo in the autumn.

In the US document, the paragraph that breaks new ground runs as follows:

'Access to safe abortion. The United States believes that access to safe, legal and voluntary abortion is the fundamental right of all women. The current text (UN draft now under discussion), although it notes the high mortality levels and the serious maternal health problems associated with unsafe abortion, is inadequate in that it only addresses abortion in cases of rape or incest. The United States believes that the global community should work to reduce the demand for abortion by eliminating the unmet need for family planning services. However, the United States delegation will also be working for stronger language on the importance of access to abortion services.'

This paragraph puts the US on a collision course with the Vatican on a matter that is at the top of the Vatican's international agenda. Hitherto, under presidents Reagan and Bush, the US has deferred to the Vatican's position in the relevant international gatherings, including at the Rio Earth Summit.

The US backing for the Vatican position has been the main factor in the general down-playing of the significance of the population explosion, and restrictions on international funding for combating it. The present key shift in the US position, through the official abandonment of the Bush/Reagan version of family values, marks a fundamental transformation of the whole international balance of forces over population issues. The Cairo conference should be very different from Rio.

The Final Preparatory Committee proposes a doubling of global expenditure on population programmes - to approximately dollars 13.2bn (almost pounds 9bn). This figure, supported by the US and Japan, seems certain to be approved at Cairo. But the overall figure is less important than the allocation of the funds involved. Assuming that the US maintains its position, most of the funds will go (irrespective of how the voting goes at Cairo) to the kind of programmes - concerned with contraception-education and diffusion, and safe abortion - which the Vatican has hitherto successfully opposed. But hitherto the Vatican has had the support of the US. That is what has changed.

Yet history teaches that the Vatican's capacity to fight a rearguard action, and to acquire unexpected allies, should not be underestimated. Currently, what the Vatican most needs to do is to deflect the US from the agenda indicated in the document submitted to the Final Preparatory Committee. The Vatican has already put the committee under notice that its own position is unaltered. A spokeswoman for the Vatican's delegation, Gail Quinn, told the New York Times: 'We would consider abortion absolutely unacceptable as a form of population control'.

There is nothing surprising about the actual statement, certainly; but that the Vatican should be addressing us through a spokeswoman is something of a novelty. This is not a radical innovation. The actual Vatican representative - technically, 'observer' - at the New York meeting is a male. Monsignor Diarmuid Martin. Ms Quinn is no more than the Monsignor's mouthpiece. Yet the choice of mouthpiece may be telling us something about Vatican strategy options, currently under consideration.

In seeking to deflect the US from its present course, the Vatican has a serious problem. Its traditional allies in the US, the 'pro-life' lobby, are now a busted flush, politically speaking. They had a gorgeous time for themselves, at the pre-election Republican convention at Houston, Texas, in the summer of 1992, with its orgy of 'family values'. But that convention is now rated high among the reasons why George Bush lost the presidential election in the following November. President Clinton owes nothing to the pro-lifers, and he owes a lot to the pro-choice people, who have helped to shape his present agenda in the run-up to the Cairo conference. Even Republican politicians are now avoiding the embrace of the pro-lifers as a political kiss of death.

So the Vatican badly needs new allies, and there are signs that it may find some, in an unexpected quarter. Would you believe the feminists are allies of the Vatican, in matters of human reproduction?

An odd couple, certainly, but like other odd couples, it may just happen. Mgr Martin, with the assistance of Ms Quinn, must now be devoting close attention to certain propositions being put to the New York Final Preparatory Committee on behalf of certain feminist groups. According to a report in the New York Times on Wednesday: '. . . despite the success achieved by family- planning programmes in India, Thailand, Kenya and other countries in containing population growth, women's groups argue that these traditional (sic) methods are demeaning and coercive, and that a dramatic shift is needed.

'The women's groups have won broad support among many population experts for a new emphasis on expanding health services to include pre- natal care, educating girls and promoting women's equality.

'Other population experts are quoted as fearing that this feminist approach 'will divert resources from the task of curbing population growth'.'

That last point is precisely the feature of the feminist approach that will appeal to the Vatican strategists. In the past, the Vatican has allied itself with Third World demagogues through the contention that 'the so-called population issue' is being used to distract attention 'from the reality of the rich world's exploitation of the poor'. Those voices will be heard loud and clear in Cairo.

The present line of the women's groups opens up attractive prospects of a similar order. I don't think that in the end the Vatican will be able to deflect the Clinton administration from its present laudable course. But the feminist card, just acquired, is now the strongest in the Vatican's hand.