General Articles

People as Resource or Burden Splits UN Population Meeting

Samantha Singson and Piero A. Tozzi, C-FAM

(NEW YORK – C-FAM) As the Commission on Population and Development (CPD) meets at the United Nations (UN) this week to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held at Cairo, fault lines have appeared between states that see people as a resource to be promoted, and those that see people as a burden to be controlled.

On the one hand the Holy See and a number of Muslim nations in particular are defending a pro-people vision of development emphasizing poverty reduction, basic education and health care, while the European Union, Canada and the new Obama administration propose fertility reduction and broad “sexual and reproductive rights,” including contraception, “safe abortion” and “sexuality education”

The latter theme has been consistently stressed by UN agencies, radical non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and “progressive” nations throughout this CPD session. In her opening address, Hania Zlotnik, the director of the UN Population Division, called on states to applaud the “rapid reduction of fertility in most developing countries” which has been achieved “mainly by expanding access to effective methods of contraception. Zlotnik asserted that “if the evils of poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger are to be eliminated, population policies that ensure reproductive health and access to family planning have to be part of the arsenal.”

There have been some positive surprises. Japan made a strong statement recognizing the major demographic problem faced as a graying, aging nation, concluding that it was essential to encourage citizens to “get married, give birth and raise children.” Croatia and Bulgaria spoke of the measures they were taking to promote birth, such as maternity allowances and paid pregnancy, maternity and paternity leave. Russia, aware of its drastic demographic collapse, also took a pro-natalist position, as it did last year.

Latin American states have been a major disappointment. Brazil and Uruguay in particular have been pushing “reproductive rights” language. The contrast, for example, between last year’s Uruguayan statement, introduced by an objective, professional demographer who recognized the problems caused by an aging populace, and this year’s is striking. The Brazilian representative also stated the government was discussing the inclusion of specialized health services, including surgical procedures, for homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals. In comparison, Cuba has been relatively restrained, inviting criticism from feminist NGOs.

Pro-life Latin voices have been muted. It is rumored that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the pro-abortion NGO Ipas are pressuring pro-life Honduras to go along with a new Latin American “consensus” that does not challenge reproductive rights language.

Malta, however, made a strong statement defending its pro-life laws and stated that it “has consistently expressed its reservation on the use of terms such as ‘reproductive rights,’ ‘reproductive services’ and ‘control of fertility.’” Malta restated its reservation to the ICPD provision “In circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be safe,” stating that the phrase “could lend itself to multiple interpretations, implying among other things, that abortion can be completely free of medical and other psychological risks, while ignoring altogether the rights of the unborn.” Saint Lucia stressed that the unborn should be included in promoting maternal and child health, and also spoke of the success of its abstinence-based programs.??

Throughout negotiations, the Holy See has been a constant voice in support of human dignity and development. It faulted the UN for “giving priority to population control and getting the poor to accept these arrangements” rather than on development issues such as education, basic health care, access to water, sanitation and employment.”

The CPD session is to conclude on Friday. Given the apparent ideological gap, a failure to produce an outcome document – an extremely unusual occurrence, which is seen as a black mark on the presiding chairperson– is possible, though unlikely.