As UN Resets Population Policy, Lead Critic Is Catholic Church

Vatican, others take hard line on birth control in preparations for world meeting next month

PREPARATIONS for the United Nations conference on population in Cairo next month highlight two growing disputes: between the Vatican and the United States government over global population control efforts, and between Pope John Paul II and many Roman Catholics over family planning.

As some 170 nations prepare for the first such gathering in 10 years, the Vatican is taking a hard line. The pope and other senior church officials have publicly quarreled with Nafis Sadik, the senior UN official on population issues, and also with President Clinton over his administration's aggressive leadership in this area.

Groups such as the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice are fighting back. In full-page ads to be run in the New York Times and elsewhere, a Maryland-based umbrella organization called Catholics Speak Out calls the church position ``a marginalized minority view in our church, defended largely by a male celibate hierarchy.''

``Catholics for a Free Choice is not representative of Catholics generally speaking,'' responds US Catholic Conference spokesman Bill Ryan. ``It's largely a front for those promoting an abortion agenda.''

The pope has called contraception an ``intrinsic evil,'' and 114 cardinals recently charged that Western countries' promotion of family planning and women's rights amounted to ``cultural imperialism.''

In preparing for the Cairo conference, planners have produced a working document that includes 203 bracketed items, meaning consensus could not be reached beforehand and government delegations will have to sort them out in September. Of these, 147 brackets were placed by the Vatican representative or by delegates from predominately Catholic countries. Among the objectionable phrases were ``reproductive rights,'' ``reproductive health,'' ``fertility regulation,'' and ``safe motherhood.''

The conference is meant to set UN population policy for the next 20 years - a time when the numbers of people in developing countries could increase dramatically. The gathering also will deal with economic development as well as women's health and education. Family-planning supporters are concerned that national and international efforts in these areas could be undermined if the Vatican and its allies prevail.

The 1984 UN population conference in Mexico City concluded that ``in no case should [abortion] be promoted as a method of family planning.'' This year's UN document calls for a decrease in abortions by increasing family-planning services. But it does not rule out abortion, leaving it up to individual countries to set policy.

President Clinton sums up his attitude by stating that ``abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.'' This is essentially what the draft UN ``Programme of Action'' advocates. Following 12 years during which Republican administrations resisted efforts to expand international family-planning programs, Clinton also has been much more active in promoting and funding such programs.

The official Roman Catholic Church position is that only periodic sexual abstinence is allowable to avoid pregnancy. But surveys show that many Roman Catholics practice birth control and regard abortion about the same as others.

Asked if ``the church should permit couples to make their own decisions about forms of birth control,'' 87 percent of US Catholics surveyed in a 1992 Gallup poll agreed - 68 percent of them ``strongly.''

According to the same survey, 82 percent support the right to abortion. The same is true of 77 percent of Canadian Catholics and similar majorities in France, Italy, Spain, and Poland. Seventy-two percent of Brazilian Catholics support the right to use any form of birth control.

Says Sister Maureen Fiedler, a Catholic nun and co-coordinator of Catholics Speak Out: ``There's an enormous gap between the laity and the hierarchy on these issues.''

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