Pro-life evangelicals have been unexpectedly pleased by the results of the United Nations population conference, even though with few exceptions they found themselves sidelined in the sharp debates in Cairo.
Indeed, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), an outspoken proponent of international human rights, called the outcome of the conference "a remarkable victory for global pro-life forces and the 100 countries throughout the world that legally protect the lives of their unborn children."
While Roman Catholics and some Muslim groups were influential at the historic United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, evangelicals afterwards were asking: Why didn't more evangelical Christians exercise greater influence?
There was a marked contrast between the respectful dialogue engaged in by disagreeing delegates and the discordant rhetoric of several American pro-lifers, who did not so much lead a moral crusade in Cairo as engage in disruption. They spoke out of order, interrupted proceedings, and got arrested.
While Smith and a few others worked inside the system, other Christian groups stood outside the process firing salvos. The International Right to Life's efforts, led by New York nurse Jeanne Head, issued press releases on the UN document and U.S. motivations, claiming the Clinton administration was using "coercion" on "poor countries" to achieve its goals. Some religious broadcasting journalists accused Latin American leaders of "bowing to financial pressures from the United States."
Several pro-lifers from the United States attended the conference on media credentials but went beyond journalistic bounds by lobbying in the halls of the conference and by using press briefings to voice their opinions. Such tactics led to the arrests of four pro-life leaders. All were detained by United Nations security police and turned over to Egyptian police for a 24-hour hotel detention while their press credentials were being reviewed. They were later released.
Pro-life leader Keith Tucci claims the National Organization for Women masterminded the arrest by asking Timothy Wirth, leader of the U.S. delegation, "to get us kicked out of the country."
Two press briefings were suspended because of the continued platforming by pro-life groups during official press sessions. The final press conference was terminated suddenly as an American pro-lifer screamed at Wirth, "You and America are an embarrassment to the world."
Despite those actions, Elizabeth de Calderon, the First Lady of El Salvador and a well-known evangelical, carefully presented her nation's unequivocal commitment to the pro-life platform.
Also, Smith headed a well-coordinated campaign to keep abortion out of the final plan. Prior to the Cairo conference, Smith rallied 72 members of Congress to sign a letter urging all delegations to the conference to "resist and reject every attempt [of the U.S. delegation] to pressure or intimidate your sovereign nation into accepting abortion on demand."
The letter described abortion as an affront to the rights of children and recalled the language of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: "The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth."
WHAT'S THE PLAN?
A 113-page plan of action emerged from the nine-day forum, which calls all nations to work together to alleviate human suffering.
Unlike previous United Nations documents on population, this plan takes an integrated approach to economics, human rights, the environment, poverty, and population. The plan states:
* Population concern is not about numbers, but about families and individuals.
* Women's empowerment, children, and their rights are at the center of population concern.
* Reproductive rights should apply to "couples and individuals," not solely to married people.
* Abortion is not a means of population control-counter to this plan's original draft, which viewed abortion as 25 percent of the answer to overpopulation.
* Abortion should be safe where legal, and "unsafe abortion" is an important health issue of governmental concern.
* The moral, legal, and religious position of each nation is to be respected as a sovereign right.
The Cairo plan calls for the world's population to level off at 7.27 billion by the year 2015; the world would contain 12.5 billion people at current rates of growth. The plan's 17 chapters tackle the need for governments to address economic development, gender equality, education, reproductive rights, children's health, refugee migration, and urbanization.
In coming years, governments and nongovernmental organizations may spend upwards of $17 billion to support family- planning programs that offer an integrated approach to population concerns. Much of the money will come from Washington. The Clinton administration is doubling U.S. spending on family planning in undeveloped countries to $585 million in 1995. Japan and Germany are also pledging to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a similar way.
Dan Heimbach, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, contends that the major premise and focus of the conference were flawed.
Heimbach has seriously questioned the premise that there is a major world population crisis, including the idea that "population growth is a bad thing." Heimbach says, "I attended a presentation that said human population is a cancer on the world." The focus on empowering women, while an important issue, was used to distort the stated intention of the summit. Such an emphasis turned the conference "into a battleground for anti-religious agendas, when the original purposes of population management and economic development [were] all but ignored," he says.
ALTERING THE LANDSCAPE
One clear result of the Cairo event is that the population debate has been decisively altered.
For the pro-life and pro-family movements, the initial drafts of the Cairo plan with its implied endorsement of abortion rights and redefinition of the "family unit" to include homosexual couples provided an effective means to rally conservatives worldwide.
During the conference, the Vatican served to lead conservatives in focusing the Cairo discussions on abortion. Unique in being both a church and a state, the Vatican was distinctly able to shape the debate by persistently maintaining its position that abortion is morally wrong.
Prior to the Cairo meeting, the Vatican launched an aggressive media campaign, claiming that the United Nations was going to push the right to abortion and contraception on all the member states.
Yet in Cairo, all opposing views somehow made it to the table. And through mutual analysis, disparate groups came out of the process with high regard for each other. In the end, even the Vatican chose to endorse the majority of the plan. Iran led the way for Muslim states, calling them to join the effort because of the importance of helping the poor and giving fair treatment to women.
The United States conceded significant ground in the area of abortion and fertility regulation, acknowledging the sovereign rights of other member nations to chart their own legislation in such areas. These concessions, however, did not diminish the U.S. delegation's support of the outcome.
The successful efforts to keep abortion off the table, while strongly urging population and development action, has moved population concerns through the abortion dispute.
Cecilia Acevedo Royals, president of the National Institute of Womanhood, a conservative, pro-life organization, told CT that the event was a "tremendous success for the efforts of pro-life people who rescued a runaway document that was pushing abortion."
Royals distributed a letter to UN delegations, signed by evangelical notables that included Prison Fellowship president Charles Colson and Focus on the Family president James Dobson, and directed to President Clinton, urging the removal of abortion from the United Nations plan.
Andrew Steer, deputy director of the World Bank's Environmental Program and an active evangelical, says Christians must see connections between poverty, education, women's health, and population. "Evangelicals can join this effort [at development] because it reflects our deeply held Christian beliefs."
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