How Clare Short aimed at an easy target, and missed

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ell, if you want to see it that way, Clare Short has seen off the Pope. The UN General Assembly was last week assessing the 1994 Cairo population conference, and on Friday it signed up to a deal to cut population growth which includes giving women greater access to abortion services and giving adolescents sex education and contraceptives with no parental strings.

The Secretary of State for International Development had personally identified the Vatican as the problem to be confronted if women are to emerge into the bright new dawn of reproductive health. "My Church is playing a deeply obstructive role," she said in an interview with The Guardian last week, "where, if it had its way, a million people would get the HIV virus,there would be more and more unwanted pregnancies, more and more illegal abortions, more and more mothers dying as a result of illegal abortions. That is the position they are trying to work for. And it's a morally destructive course."

In case anyone didn't get the gist, the paper spelled it out in an editorial which pronounced that "the refusal to acknowledge female reproductive rights ... is on a par with the Inquisition as one of the gravest wrongs perpetuated by the Catholic Church in its long history".

On this one, Clare Short, an "ethnic Catholic", unquestionably packs a punch. The attempt by her Tory shadow, Gary Streeter, to call for an apology on the grounds that she has given offence to millions of Catholics and Moslems hasn't really stuck.

Plain speaking is Clare Short's vocation in politics; sometimes it happens, as here, that she goes with the grain of PC prejudice, and at other times, like her robust critique of the campaign to cancel global debt, she goes right against it. Almost always her moral indignation rings true and her courage is unquestionable. In going for the Vatican, however, she didn't need any courage at all. It's really easy to hold up the Church's objection to artificial contraception and abortion as tantamount to a death sentence on women; everyone at the conference, unless you leave out countries like Saudi Arabia, Argentina and Nicaragua, was saying much the same. Actually, her Tory predecessor at the Cairo conference, Lynda Chalker, had very similar sentiments.

What would have been more constructive, and more difficult for the Holy See to handle, however, would be an approach from Clare Short that didn't view reproductive health as a single blanket issue. Contraception and abortion aren't bacon-and-egg issues, things that automatically go together. There is a moral distinction between deliberately killing a human foetus and preventing its fertilisation in the first place.

There is, if it comes to that, a distinction to be made between one kind of contraception and another. Condoms are more moral than the Pill; they stop ova being fertilised; many third-wave contraceptives may prevent the fertilised embryo from implanting and growing. Germaine Greer, in The Whole Woman, was one of the few feminists who could be bothered to make this elementary point; a pity the Secretary of State doesn't take it on board.

There is also the question of the kind of way of living that the people at the UN conference in general have in mind, in asking that adolescent girls should be treated like grown-ups when it comes to the provision of contraceptives. As Clare Short put it: "We're saying that those rights extend to all people, including young people, who all over the world are sexually active at a younger age." It's the approach to sex epitomised by Geri. The former Spice Girl recently descended on the Philippines looking really serious in a suit, as the roving safe-sex ambassador for the UN, to exhort young people to use contraceptives and to take the Philippines government to task for not giving out enough of them. It was, to Geri's mind, pretty straightforward.

But sexual behaviour isn't just a given; adolescent promiscuity is not a uniform, global fact of life; not every country wants to aspire to the condition of Essex in seeing sex as an unproblematic business of hygiene.

You can't just see a region's traditions and family culture as a problem to be solved by outsiders providing more and better contraceptive services. Actually, the Philippines government has tried to get to grips with the population question, in its own way. The President, Joseph Estrada, himself an eighth child, has acknowledged that the country's 2.3 per cent annual population growth is a problem and he has created a committee to address the question. It includes non-governmental organisations, and also representatives of the Church. It follows a new package of measures by the health secretary, Alberto Romualdez, which include family planning services that embrace advice on techniques of natural family planning compatible with Catholic teaching, as well as a range of artificial methods. It's one country's solution to its own condition, a far cry from the prescriptive approach that you associate with UN and especially US programmes of population control.

In fairness, the Secretary of State isn't just mechanistic in her way of looking at the question. She doesn't separate reproductive health from general health services, she doesn't see population control as something apart from economic development, and she links the whole issue to the education of girls. And here unanimity breaks out. If girls go to school, they marry later, bear fewer children. On this front, the Church is part of the solution, not the problem. It runs a significant proportion of welfare institutions in developing countries, from orphanages to hospitals - more than 114,000 worldwide - and when it comes to education services, it provides, in some parts of Africa and central America, practically the only chance of schooling for girls. If Clare Short wants to abolish global poverty, give women more autonomy and generally increase the sum of human happiness, she will have to work with the world religions, not against them. Her own Church isn't a bad place to start.