Crises, Tidings & Revelations: The Cairo Conference

The New York Times celebrated the eve of the Cairo Conference with one of the saddest pictures I have ever seen. The scene is a medical clinic in Karachi, Pakistan; four young women are seen lying side-by-side at a 90-degree angle across two beds, the paint visibly peeling from the metal headboards. The patients wear street clothes while a nurse, replete in medical white, leans toward one of them handing her the equivalent of $1.60 for having undergone sterilization. The women’s faces are expressionless; one stares at the ceiling in what looks like despair.

Since the name of the game at the Cairo Conference will be the millions of American dollars passed around for acquiescing to Clinton Administration mandates about “reproductive health” and the “empowerment of women,” one can only assume that scenes such as this will only be more plentiful in the future. The faces of these women are answer enough to those who say that the sterilizations and abortions resulting from the draft proposal will be voluntary. One must ask how voluntary will they be when American aid drives the payment up from, say, $1.60 to $5.00 for a woman’s motherhood. The increased determination of state authorities to lower the birthrate, coupled with the poverty experienced in many of these nations, makes such decisions almost irresistible to many.

People ask what is wrong with a conference, to use the language of Cairo, dedicated to stabilizing population growth, protecting natural resources, and halting the spread of poverty. Such aims are laudable, but bad philosophy, bad politics, and bad social science infuse the entire project. Papal criticism of the conference, as spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls has written in the Wall Street Journal, “is in fact pointing to the key issue on which the future of humanity must make a choice. This issue of human life and population undergirds all others. A false step here leads to a general disorder of civilization itself.”

The disorder begins, obviously, with the elimination and prevention of some human lives in order, supposedly, to guarantee a better life for others. The state takes the next step by adopting this project as its own and, in the name of population control, pursing it with the zeal of someone whose authority is unbounded by any external measure of morality.

The zealotry of the Cairo Conference is cloaked in the language of caring. I have lost count of the times I have heard people justify abortion on the grounds of “loving children.” This is a baffling comment, to say the least, given that it ignores the order of love itself, specifically, its relation to the human good. In what John Paul II calls the “culture of death,” love, caring, and compassion require the elimination of suffering. ‘The child destined to suffer greatly is the child who should not be born’ is the message born aloft by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Marion Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Dr. Hafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund and Secretary General of the Cairo Conference.

Dr. Sadik earned the laurel of a recent interview in People magazine. The code words and the plaintive appeals to sensitivity, so brilliantly exploited by the late Walker Percy in the Thanatos Syndrome, are predictably heard. Our “quality of life will erode,” she explains, if we do not limit the world’s population to 7.8 billion by 2004.

Of course by eliminating this suffering we also free ourselves to pursue a radical individuality without the obligations imposed by those around us who suffer. In this sense, the Cairo Conference is ultimately, as Msgr. Diarmuid Martin has aptly put it, about life-styles, not about numbers. For this reason, the conference document banishes the traditional family to its margins. The traditional family, as such, is the enemy since its responsibilities inhibit women from pursuing their “empowerment.” Obviously advocates of the Cairo document have broken ranks with United Nations founders, such as Jacques Maritain, a co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who sought to protect the family as the fundamental unit of society. Those values that empower families to stay together only create an obstacle to states intent upon increasing their own.

Thus, a dangerous sentimentality and false sense of liberty pervade the final draft document of International Conference on Population and Development. Throughout its pages human life and suffering are played off against one another. One of its central assumptions, that suffering somehow destroys our reason to live, is never questioned. But the document has plenty of numbers close at hand when the question arises of how it can be known that the unborn are destined for suffering.

Indeed, throughout the media coverage of this event, statistics are being churned out as if numbers alone should earn wide-eyed reverence for the purposes of the conference. The numbers game being played by these “family planning” advocates reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ comment in The Problem of Pain that suffering is always individual. It might deflate some of the statistical puffery a bit if we recall that a thousand people do not suffer more individually than a dozen. This is not meant as a glib acceptance of suffering but rather as a reminder that aggregates of suffering only have numerical existence.

More importantly, the numbers themselves are being crunched according to the questionable principle, first enunciated by Malthus, that greater population necessarily leads to a rise in poverty. This analysis has been discredited for decades, but this is not the first time that determined ideologists either ignored the facts or created their own in order to sweep aside criticism. Case in point, the most recent findings have shown that no necessary correlation exists between population growth and poverty. Much more germane, and entirely in line with recent papal encyclicals, is the basic importance of economic opportunity and development.

A New York Times editorial, however, insists upon sounding an apocalyptic note, this one scripted by environmentalists — the population explosion “threatens to impoverish the planet.” Odd diction for a conference about human population and development! It makes one wonder, again, whether these advocates are clear about whether they are committed to the human good or to the protection of some impersonal ecosystem. An advertisement a few days later in the same paper signed by eighty-eight Nobel Laureates bewails the damage to the atmosphere, water table, and arable soil that will be committed by “the continued growth in the number of people who inhabit this planet. . . .” My advice is to think twice before trusting anyone who uses the word “planet” in moral or political argument. Or, ask them if they would be willing personally to embrace extinction for the sake of saving their beloved planet.

Feminists, however, even more than environmentalists, seem to be the controlling faction of the conference. They must have been disappointed when Vice President Al Gore, the leader of the U. S. delegation, insisted that the United States was not advocating an international right to abortion. Since previous to this announcement a State Department cable was sent to all U. S. embassies calling abortion “a fundamental right of all women,” Catholics can be justified in taking this as a statement of policy. Since Gore repeated his claim during his address at the opening of the conference, we can look forward to the Administration sticking by it. Consistency on this point is going to be very difficult given the fact that feminist activists like Sen. Pat Schroeder are already promising legislation to put the Cairo principles into practice around the world.

The Administration’s next response to pressure from the Vatican was to suggest the withdrawal of the word “right” from the document, as if to suggest that the disagreement were merely semantic. What the Vatican wanted, and the only move that will clarify the dispute, is a clear statement saying that specific means, such as abortion, even presently legalized abortion, will not be funded by these programs. Since everyone knows what Clintonites mean by “reproductive health care” little comfort can be taken from their new language, especially when vast amounts of U. S. aid will insure that foreign nations get in line.

Several Muslim nations, however, along with the Vatican, appear to be immobile on this issue. Cairo advocates were delighted, of course, with the entrance of “militant” and “fundamentalist” Muslim groups on the side of the Vatican. It was even falsely suggested that Vatican emissaries were sent to Kadafy and Hussein. The media, however, has not missed the opportunity to associate, almost daily, the objections of Muslim fundamentalists with the position of John Paul II. If the mere objection by the “Religious Right” in the Muslim world was a source of delight, how much more the threat of violence, or, even more actual violence itself. Like the murder of the abortion doctor in Pensacola, these unfortunate occurrences will be used to paint all objections with the brush of hatred and intolerance. It is a good bet that the same treatment will not be accorded to the AIDS movement on the basis of the recent slashing of a New York State health official by an irate homosexual activist.


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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