Leading Article: A rather unholy religious pact

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The Independent Online
AN UNLIKELY alliance is being formed between the Vatican and Muslim fundamentalists against population control. Both are focusing their attacks on the United Nations population conference to be held in Cairo in September. The Pope has even sent a nuncio to Tehran to discuss the issue. According to the Tehran press, the deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Hashemi Rafsanjani, said afterwards that 'the future war is between the religious and the materialists'.

Now the Vatican is turning its heavy guns on the latest annual report by the United Nations Population Fund, which will be debated at the conference, accusing it of promoting abortion on demand. 'The future of humanity is under discussion,' said a papal official.

Literally he is right, of course, but most people will feel the future of humanity will look more hopeful if his advice is ignored. He is also wrong about the UN report. Due out on August 17, it is markedly unenthusiastic about abortion, quoting World Bank estimates that it accounts for at least 60,000 maternal deaths a year. The report specifically calls for better family planning information and services to minimise recourse to abortion.

Fundamentalists in both camps are against family planning too. For the Vatican this is a theological matter, for Islam it is more social and political. The Koran is a flexible text that makes no clear ruling on abortion or birth control. It condemns interfering with pregnancy but has been interpreted by the 12-century scholar al-Ghazali as permitting termination within 16 weeks. The practice is, in fact, widespread in the Muslim world, especially in the more secular states, as are other forms of birth control.

But Islamic fundamentalists are using the issue primarily as a political stick with which to beat governments they dislike. They depict birth control as a Western conspiracy to keep down the global population of Muslims and corrupt their women with Western habits. In the same way, anti-abortionists in the United States and elsewhere claim to be defending a wider spectrum of moral values.

These goings on will make rational discussion in Cairo difficult. It is important, however, that the conference should not be deflected by Vatican pressure as the Rio Earth Summit was in 1992. The population of the globe is now 5.66 billion. Assuming continued declining fertility it could be 10 billion in 2050. Without it, the figure could be 12.2 billion. In theory global agriculture might be expanded to feed that number. In fact the most productive areas are in the wrong place and producing at the wrong prices. A still more serious constraint is lack of water.

Global agreement on population control is therefore badly needed. The doctrine that poverty is the main cause of high birth rates - because poor parents want large families to earn for them - has been largely superseded. Experience shows that when poor women are offered a real choice they opt for fewer children.

The need to empower women to expand their range of choices is, therefore, the main message from the UN. This is what Muslim fundamentalists want least. It is sad that the Vatican should join such regressive company.