Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting words

United Nations | Despite shrinking population in the developed world, a UN battle over population control goes on

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

NEW YORK-The entire nation of Saint Lucia has about one-fiftieth the population of New York City-160,000. You would think a tiny island country floating in the Caribbean Sea has the international clout of a mosquito, but at a United Nations Commission on Population and Development session a few weeks ago, it stood against the superpowers with a tiny but feisty group of pro-life nations and activists.

Every word in each document counts, and the pro-life contingent was concerned about a change in the language that didn't include a clear definition. The session finally backed down and returned to the original language.

Afterwards, the mission of Saint Lucia stood with countries like Malta, Ireland, and the Holy See and said they wished to emphasize that the terms "sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights" do not create any right to abortion. They took issue with the phrase "safe abortion," saying it implied that abortion was "free of medical and psychological risks." They reiterated the right not to participate in abortion, saying, "the universal right to conscience can in no way be overridden or weakened."

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Those are fighting words, and this was the latest battle in the international war over population control, being waged for 15 years now by a coalition of mostly feisty little countries and pro-life organizations with a handful of money and staff. This fringe has been able to push against the tide, and now some even wonder if the end of the battle is in sight.

The fight to stop population control took international force in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund and held in Cairo, Egypt. Back then, recalls Steve Mosher, president of Population Research Institute, few were even aware of an international battle against population control. But Pope John Paul II urged Catholics to attend the session, and a small group from across the world took up the call.

They found a plan for population control that included abortion on demand. Austin Ruse, president of Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), said pro-lifers eventually battled over every line in Cairo's "Programme of Action." The introduction to the document calls the negotiations "intense" and records that a minority of countries expressed reservations at the end of it.

The pro-lifers won, insofar that the ICPD Programme of Action does not enshrine abortion on demand and clearly states that abortion "in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning." In fact, thanks to pro-life vigilance over the years, no binding international treaty explicitly urges abortion on demand. "We have very much won the debate over an international right to abortion," said Ruse. "The other side doesn't even try anymore after Cairo to get an explicit right to abortion."

But while pro-life advocates have won the debate on the document's language, which has guided subsequent UN action on population programs, they're still fighting the debate on how to interpret that language. Pro-abortion advocates have adopted more subtle phrases like "reproductive health," "reproductive rights," and "reproductive services." Now activist judges, NGOs, and other UN bodies often interpret these phrases to support abortion, although no binding UN treaty defines them that way.

Other contentious meetings came and went-in Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and Copenhagen. "We found in Cairo that we were always behind the curve," said Mosher, so pro-lifers began attending each conference, honing their skills at interpreting the intricacies of the language, and their savvy and strength at calling the subtleties of international subterfuge. Some Canadian pro-lifers pooled donations to create C-FAM in 1997, and other organizations like the International Solidarity and Human Rights Institute took root, too.

Ruse said, "The day we opened our doors at C-FAM I had never been in the UN. I had never worked in the pro-life movement before. I came from business." Now C-FAM has half a dozen employees-including a lawyer who keeps an eye on judges who might use international law to support abortion-and a subscriber list of 200,000.

The debate has changed, as the entire problem of overpopulation becomes a moot point. The birth rate is below replacement level in many developed countries now, and their population is graying. At the recent CPD session in April, several countries voiced concern over low birth rates and said they were adopting measures to increase births, not lower them.

Developments like this make Mosher wonder if, since the movement had a beginning, it may also come to an end. "It began at discrete points in time for particular reasons and those reasons are evaporating one by one," he argues. "I believe it will have a discrete ending at some point in time."


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