Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Catholic World News News Feature

Cairo and Beyond June 01, 2004

By John Mallon

In every decade since 1954, the United Nations has sponsored an international conference on the subject of the world's population. (In 1954 the conference was in Rome, in 1965 in Belgrade, in 1974 in Bucharest, in 1984 in Mexico City, in 1994 in Cairo). But now in 2004 there is no such conference. Why?

The answer given by those close to the action is surprisingly simple: There is no conference planned for 2004 because there is a pro-life administration in the White House.

To understand why UN organizers do not want a conference to take place during the George W. Bush presidency, one must understand the history of these gatherings, and their increasingly militant approach to controversial issues such as abortion.

The UN that organized the 1974 Bucharest conference was not quite the same institution as the UN of today, and the final document produced by the conference was quite reasonable, showing great concern for families. The word "abortion" appears perhaps once or twice; with the concern being to avoid them. There were also a few mentions of family planning and contraception, but again they were always mentioned in the context of assisting families. By no means were these hot-button issues the main topic of the conference.

In the Mexico City document, abortion is mentioned twice in the same sentence. In order to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality, governments are urged: "to take appropriate steps to help women avoid abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning, and whenever possible, provide for the humane treatment and counseling of women who have had recourse to abortion." Contraception also receives scant mention, and only in passing, in the context of scientific studies of population trends.

The Mexico City conference also resulted in the American "Mexico City policy," which bars the use of US taxpayer funds for overseas abortions. This policy was enacted by the Reagan administration, and continued by executive order under the first Bush administration, until it was overturned by executive order, along with several other domestic pro-life measures, on the first day of the Clinton administration. In his turn, George W. Bush reinstated the Mexico City policy, along with some of the other pro-life policies that Bill Clinton had halted, immediately after his own inauguration. This infuriated the members of the international abortion lobby, who refer to the Mexico City policy as "the global gag rule," because it stipulates that recipients of US tax funds cannot advocate abortion.


By the time of the Cairo conference in 1994, the fundamental complexion of these meetings had undergone a dramatic shift. This UN meeting was wildly radicalized, its proceedings marked by an influx of radical ideology from the ranks of feminists, environmentalists, and population controllers. It was at Cairo that feminists made their first determined effort to promote their agenda through the "rights language" of UN documents; they sought recognition for a universal right to legal abortion, which would be codified in UN declarations and treaties. And from the Cairo conference to the present day, radical feminists have relentlessly pushed to advance their agenda through UN policies, under the rubric of "sexual and reproductive rights."

The Cairo conference was called the "International Conference on Population and Development," or ICPD for short. As Jeanne Head, the UN representative of the International Right To Life Federation, said, "It was long on population and short on development." The focus was almost entirely on the alleged threats of world population growth and the need for more energetic efforts to promote family-planning programs, especially in the Third World.

It was in the UN that radical groups, especially feminists, believed they had at last found the vehicle to promote and codify their agenda, having failed to realize it through the democratic process in their own countries. However, whenever they pushed too hard they met resistance. In Cairo that resistance stalled the effort to enshrine abortion as a legal right, and although the final document produced by the Cairo conference included enthusiastic endorsements of family planning, it won approval only after the inclusion of a statement known as the "Cairo Chapeau," which insisted that abortion was never to be used as a form of family planning.

While proponents of an international "right" to abortion saw their efforts blocked in Cairo, they were by no means ready to give up the fight. In 1999 the UN organized a series of gatherings under the rubric of "Cairo+5"—conferences designed to assess the progress made by the world's nations is living up to the standards set by the Cairo conference. The largest of these efforts was an NGO (non-governmental organizations) Forum, held in February 1999 at The Hague. This reporter covered that conference as a journalist, and the atmosphere was one of a veritable jamboree of pro-abortion ideology. Of 800 credentialed NGOs at The Hague, only eight pro-life groups had been grudgingly admitted. There was an open and palpable hostility toward any pro-life representatives, who were insulted and in a few instances even manhandled. The United States delegation in particular was peopled with representatives from powerful pro-abortion groups led by Planned Parenthood. In fact, the UN organization sponsoring the conferences, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), was led by a veritable Who's Who of former International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) leaders.


The enormous influence of IPPF within the framework of the UN—particularly the UNFPA—is noteworthy in light of the ideas that IPPF espouses. The IPPF "Charter On Sexual And Reproductive Rights" sets forth 12 basic human rights. The list includes:

5. The Right to Freedom of Thought

The Charter states that the right to freedom of thought applies to, and should be invoked to protect, the right of all persons to access to education and information related to their sexual and reproductive health free from restrictions on grounds of thought, conscience, and religion.

If "sexual and reproductive health" is taken to include access to legal abortion—as proponents of abortion say it must be—then that plank in the IPPF Charter clearly implies a condemnation of the "Mexico City policy" currently upheld by the Bush Administration. The plank also implies, none too subtly, that any religious opposition to abortion should be squelched. And all this is done in the name of women's health. To oppose the "Charter On Sexual And Reproductive Rights," IPPF leads us to believe, means to show a gross insensitivity toward the rights of women. IPPF flatly refuses to acknowledge their adversaries' arguments that abortion causes morbidity and mortality among the women who procure abortions, not to mention the aborted children.

A particularly clear example of that heavy-handed approach came on June 24, 2000. On the occasion of their annual meeting, the organization published an "Open Letter from IPPF European Network To Pope John Paul II," with an accompanying press release explaining to reporters that IPPF was asking the Pontiff to "stop the Vatican's war on women." The IPPF statement inveighed against the Vatican's opposition to the promotion of abortion and contraception among refugees in Kosovo, urged the approval of condom use as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS, and pleaded for the Catholic Church to accept "sexual diversity." On the first point IPPF—which had used the war in Kosovo as the pretext for a massive drive to promote family-planning programs among refugees there—gave a heated (and scientifically inaccurate) defense of the "morning-after" pill, and accused the Vatican of adding to the suffering of miserable refugees:

The Holy See is misinformed in its view that emergency contraception is an abortifacient. Emergency contraceptive pills can stop or delay an egg from being released from the ovary or can prevent fertilization or implantation. Pills are ineffective once implantation has begun, therefore they do not cause an abortion. Are you aware that the physical and psychological suffering that these women had been through, not to mention the shame they felt, was exacerbated by these accusations of murder? [emphasis in original]


In the drive to promote universal legalized abortion through the UN, the essential struggle centers on the use and interpretation of the phrase "sexual and reproductive health." Is that language a code, implying approval for abortion, contraception, and sterilization? The former general secretary of IPPF, Ingar Brueggemann, told the National Catholic Register that the phrase held no such hidden meaning. But pro-life activists working at the UN can point to case after case in which, once that language was set down in an official UN document, international activists proceeded on the assumption that the phrase did indeed mean approval for abortion. [For an account of a revealing episode in which abortion proponents dropped their usual reticence about interpreting the phrase, and confirmed the suspicions long held by pro-lifers, see the accompanying CWR interview with Austin Ruse, page 39.- Ed.]

If "sexual and reproductive health" is a basic human right, guaranteed in multiple UN documents—and if that phrase implies the need for legal access to abortion—then what attitude will the UN take toward countries where abortion is not legal? An alarming answer to that question was introduced at a recent UN meeting.

The UN Human Rights Commission met in Geneva in April, and heard a report from special rapporteur Paul Hunt. The title of the report was sweeping: "Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health." Within a few pages it became clear that Hunt was making the case that "sexual and reproductive rights" were implicit in existing international human-rights laws, and that future UN conferences should make these rights more explicit. Hunt cited the multiple references to "sexual and reproductive health" in previous UN documents, "including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child." He went on to call for "the recognition that human rights have an indispensable role to play in relation to sexual and reproductive health." Then Hunt made this striking claim:

Of course, not all sexual and reproductive ill health represents a violation of the right to health or other human rights. Ill health constitutes a human rights violation when it arises, in whole or in part, from the failure of a duty-bearer—typically a State—to respect, protect, or fulfill a human-rights obligation. Obstacles stand between individuals and their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health. From the human rights perspective, a key question is: are human rights duty-bearers doing all in their power to dismantle these barriers?

This could easily be interpreted to mean—and there can be very little doubt that Hunt intended it to mean—that a law restricting access to abortion is a human-rights violation, and a state that upholds such a law is guilty of a failure to "respect, protect, or fulfill a human-rights obligation."

Moreover, Hunt writes of the state's duty to tear down "barriers" and "obstacles" to sexual and reproductive health. What are those obstacles and barriers? Hunt answers that question clearly: "Some traditional views about sexuality are obstacles to the provision of sexual and reproductive health services." So traditional religious views on sexuality are, in the mind of the UN's special rapporteur, an obstacle to health and thus a violation of human rights, and a state that fails to "dismantle" such obstacles is guilty of its own human-rights abuses! Hunt drives home his point: "Crucially, human-rights law places obligations on duty-bearers to do all they can do to dismantle the barriers to sexual and reproductive health."


In making the suggestion that religions should be required to change their moral teachings, Hunt is not alone. In discussions of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) there has been talk of mandating that the world's great religions must change their sacred texts to come into compliance with the vision of CEDAW.

Fortunately, such extreme positions have not won the formal endorsement of the UN. At that April meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, approval of the report from special rapporteur Hunt was withheld, because of a single dissent. When the vote was taken on acceptance of the Hunt report, there were 52 votes in favor; the sole dissent came from the United States.

In May, the American mission to the UN took another step to bolster the pro-life position, with a public statement clarifying the US position on the Cairo conference—formally known as the International Conference on Population and Development, or ICPD—and various follow-up statements. The particular focus of the clarification, the US delegation explained, was the meaning of "the terms “reproductive rights,” “reproductive health,” “reproductive health care and services,” “family planning services,” and “sexual health.” Whenever those terms were "reaffirmed" in more recent UN resolutions, the American mission said: "The United States understands that the word 'reaffirming' ... does not constitute a reaffirmation of any language in those documents that could be interpreted as promoting abortion or the use of abortifacients."

In case that statement left any questions lingering, the US mission continued:

The United States further understands that any affirmation or reaffirmation of ICPD, ICPD+5, or other United Nations conference documents does not imply any support for, or promotion of abortion, nor is it a denial of the United States’ firm support for the rights of conscientious objection for health-care workers whose personal beliefs might dictate their refusal to perform, or be involved in, abortion or abortion-related activities.

[AUTHOR ID] John Mallon is a free-lance writer in Oklahoma.