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Associated Press

Population debate

International | The UN Commission on Population and Development grappled this week over abortion language and declining populations

NEW YORK-The UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD) just closed its 42nd session-significant partly because it is the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), but especially noteworthy to family and pro-life advocates in the United States because of the recent administration change.

Piero A. Tozzi, vice president and general counsel of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said last year's CPD session was "much less contentious" than this year's: "If you look at the last eight years, the feminists and other radical groups at the UN really trimmed their sails because the Bush administration opposed language that could be construed as approving abortion."

Language like "sexual and reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights" is sometimes construed to support abortion, although the ICPD Programme of Action from 1994 says abortion "idno case should be promoted as a method of family planning." Tozzi said, "This year we're seeing a much, much bigger push of such language."

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Margaret J. Pollack spoke on behalf of the United States at CPD, making a statement declaring U.S. commitment to ICPD goals: "most particularly universal access to sexual and reproductive health and the protection and promotion of reproductive rights." The statement also applauded President Obama's rescinding of the Mexico City policy (a Bush policy that refused funding to international groups that promote abortion), and the decision to give $50 million to the United Nations Population Fund.

Other countries, however, made pro-life statements. On Wednesday, Malta's delegation reiterated its stance that no position or recommendation should "create an obligation on any party to consider abortion as a legitimate form of family planning, reproductive health rights, services or commodities." It added that the phrase "abortion should be safe" can lend itself to the interpretation "that abortion can be completely free of medical and other psychological risks, while ignoring altogether the rights of the unborn."

The representative from the Holy See said, "Abortion is not a legitimate form of sexual and reproductive health, rights, or services," and urged international leaders to invest in "personal and social development" instead of focusing on population control.

Other European countries spoke of declining populations and measures to encourage fertility. In a new development, according to Tozzi, Japan joined them in recognizing the disadvantages of a rapidly declining population.

The session's final document contains language that calls on governments to provide young people with "comprehensive education on human sexuality," adding, "reproductive health and reproductive rights embrace certain human rights." It urges countries-where abortion is not against the law-to "train and equip health-service providers and . . . take other measures to ensure that such abortion is safe and accessible."

Some delegations-including Uganda, Iran, and Sudan-objected to changing the phrase "sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights" to "sexual and reproductive health and rights." This departed from the carefully negotiated phraseology from 1994, and without a clear definition of terms, the delegations were reluctant to adopt the document. The Commission agreed to change the phrase back to its original wording, allowing the body to reach consensus.

But other delegations expressed reservations afterward, including Malta, Poland, Ireland, the Holy See, and Saint Lucia. They reiterated that the document contains no new acknowledgement of rights, including a right to abortion. Saint Lucia made an especially strong statement invoking the right to conscience when it comes to participating in abortions.

Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International, said, "Under the Clinton administration we had to fight the U.S. on almost every issue. Under the Bush administration we worked together as a team. Now we're back to fighting the U.S. on almost everything." Slater said they were planning to send only two volunteers to the session but ended up sending 10 once they saw the proposed document.

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