Global plan for a better family

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The Independent Online
I HAVE become a Cairo news junkie, reading and watching everything I can find on the subject of the world population conference. Ask yourself: where else has the fundamental condition of all women, whatever their status or the state of their personal freedom, been so intensely debated, or seen to be so relevant to the next century? And who but the United Nations would have organised it?

You might have thought that for the UN to call a population conference hard on the heels of the not universally well received Rio talk-shop on the global environment would lead to a further lowering of its prestige. Reports leading up to the Cairo meeting were grudging and negative.

But as the conference nears its climax, the pessimism seems misplaced. Earlier this week I found myself sitting at lunch next to the Indian High Commissioner to Britain, Dr LM Singhvi. A sage human rights lawyer, he identified a definite shift in the media coverage towards a more positive mood of expectancy about the conference. To him, the most crucial contribution so far had come from Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, who, as head of a populous Muslim country, had publicly committed it to planned parenthood, so long as women's healthcare programmes meshed with an enlightened Islam.

Cairo has also produced a statement from the Holy See admitting that there are obvious global problems arising from the present population growth. I've always wondered whether the Vatican really has the power to prevent the spread of artificial birth control that many people think it has. Certainly the Italians are immune: the country has a birth rate of 1.5 children per woman, well below the replacement rate - but then high birth rates are not a feature of developed nations.

The abortion issue, of course, remains ticking away - let's face it, abortion can never be swept under the carpet, nor should it - but it is one that intelligent people, eager to achieve the greater goal of reduced population growth through health education, can demonstrably work around. In this, the conference truthfully reflects the world outside; abortion is not a subject that inflames only devout Catholics or Muslims. America is also torn by the debate. And there are sizeable groups in most countries, Britain included, who feel unease at the practice.

No one, in 1994, could seriously argue that a state birth-control policy with abortion as its central plank, as was the case in the former Soviet Union, is desirable. Nor that the prevalence of life-threatening illegal abortions should not be usurped by improved knowledge about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

The Cairo conference is trying to steer clear of dictating to countries, or families, how many children a woman should have. This is essential for workable liberal policies that are consistent with human rights. No one should lecture anyone else about the size of their family. It is a personal matter. So I take exception to Dr Anne McLaren's prediction to the British Association for the Advancement of Science conference this week that in a few years 'anyone with, say, six children will be regarded in much the same light as someone today who chronically overeats or drinks too much,' while one or two children at most will be the norm.

I admit to four, well-spaced children: am I about to become a social pariah? I thought I was helping to correct the worrying imbalance between young and old in Britain. Discussing the speech with friends brought an interesting insight. I am the exception in having so many children; they tend to be late mothers who have just one cherished child, or are seeking fertility treatment. Those with only one said they deeply resented the way other people pressure them to have a second baby. The conventional view that an only child is unnatural seems to be one of those blindly enduring beliefs buried deep in British culture.

But the desire to dictate family size is not only a British trait. Some 95 per cent of anticipated population growth before 2025 is expected in the developing countries, but this does not give rich nations any right to sit in judgement on those that are poor. Again, we should be grateful for the consensus achieved at Cairo.

The methods being debated by the UN conference amount to acceptable social engineering - using health education about human reproduction to assist women in spacing and planning their children. If more women in developing countries were well educated, they might follow their Western sisters and perhaps even opt for none. Meanwhile, to be informed about the brief fertile points in every woman's reproductive cycle might be more beneficial to an isolated village woman than condoms.

Cairo is making people think hard about little understood and complicated issues: links between population growth, development and education; at what point do birth rates fall? Why do some highly populous countries harness their collective ingenuity and technology and make great leaps in wealth and power (19th- century Britain, 20th-century Japan) which allow them to support greater numbers with relative ease? At least the UN is trying to make us confront, intelligently, the great global trends.