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Wednesday, June 30, 1999 Published at 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK

Vatican is family planning stumbling block

The Vatican delegation blocked progress at Cairo

By Rome Correspondent David Willey

The Cairo population conference five years ago marked a switch in UN strategies to curb population growth by switching from an emphasis on demographic control to programmes for general health care, education and contraceptive choice for women.

The theory is that if women are literate, informed and able to make their own decisions, they will choose to have fewer children.

World Population
But with the world's population expected to reach 6bn in October and nearly 9bn by the year 2050, funds for such programmes are badly lacking in developing countries. Promises made in Cairo by the developed countries to provide cash have been broken.

Traditional religious attitudes towards birth control also continue to affect the policies of many predominantly Catholic countries.

One of the most sobering aspects of the Cairo population conference was the way in which the Vatican delegation tried to block progress towards a worldwide consensus on limiting population growth.

At one point some frustrated delegates proposed that the Vatican be expelled from its observer status at the United Nations because of the blocking tactics of the Pope's representatives.

Conservative coalition

The Vatican emerged in Cairo as the prime mover of a loose coalition of Catholic and Islamic countries who oppose more family planning, more sex education, and more access to legal abortion.

These countries - motivated by strong religious convictions - include on the one hand strongly Catholic Latin American states such as Argentina and Guatemala, and on the other, Islamic African and Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Iran.

There is no evidence that these countries' attitudes have changed much during the last five years, while world population continues to soar.

Backtracking attempt

At a preparatory UN meeting to the New York Population Review Conference last month, conservative countries, encouraged by the Vatican, tried to go back on decisions reached in Cairo.

[ image: The Persona contraceptive method is Vatican-approved]
The Persona contraceptive method is Vatican-approved
They sought to bolster parental authority at the expense of educating young people about sex and providing them with independent health care.

Sex education for teenagers, womens' rights and parental roles are still viewed in radically different ways in different cultures.

The development of the new "morning-after" contraceptive pill which destroys a fertilized egg before it becomes implanted in the uterine wall, making a woman clinically pregnant, has also widened the gap between the secular Western point of view, and traditional Catholic and Islamic teaching on birth control.

The Vatican recently voiced strong objection to the proposal that women raped in Kosovo should be allowed to use the "emergency pill" to avoid becoming pregnant on the grounds that it is in effect an abortion.

Some doctors regard the knowledge of embryology displayed by Catholic theologians as outdated.

Changing attitudes

However in Latin America, the part of the world where the Roman Catholic Church is now strongest, and where the debate for and against government-funded contraception clinics is perhaps most divisive, attitudes have changed during the past five years and are continuing to do so.

Countries like Mexico - where there has been a government-encouraged demographic revolution during the past 30 years and the average family size has dropped dramatically during the pontificate of the present Pope from six or seven to only two or three children - do not support the Vatican line, although abortion is still illegal there.

Peru, busy creating a new reproductive health program, has also formally declared that it regards Cairo as a departure point, not an end.

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