20 Years After Cairo

Editor’s Note: This is Part IV of a four part series on the implications and effects of the International Conference on Population and Development that took place twenty years ago in Cairo.

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and its outcome document, the Programme of Action, initiated a fierce tug-of-war between those in the UN system who oppose abortion, and those who promote it. That conflict continues unabated today. The Programme of Action is a compendium of analysis, opinion and recommendations, and some of it is clearly intended to legitimize and propagate a novel feminist understanding of population control based on contraception and abortion. Its effect has been to shape the narrative on population and development, enshrine dishonest rhetoric and change some laws for the worse.

Mrs. Clinton, like many others, espouses a false view of "women's health"

Mrs. Clinton, like many others, espouses a false view of “women’s health”

The conflict is over understandings of “reproductive health” and women’s rights. Reproductive health, like health generally, would be a laudable goal if the phrase weren’t laden with hidden meanings and burdened with a long history of deliberate misuse. Women’s health and their exercise of authentic human rights do impact population and development, because women have roles as both mother and worker. But the prevailing dogma that population, (i.e., high fertility) always negatively impacts development has been clearly refuted. The fact that the ICPD Programme of Action and subsequent post-ICPD progress reports ignore the data on this issue shows a genuine bias against family and fertility.

UNFPA, the UN’s principle population controllers, were deeply involved with ICPD and are now heavily invested in its promotion. In fact, Cairo gave a new direction to the population concerns of the UN:

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) articulated a bold new vision about the relationships between population, development and individual well-being…The ICPD Programme of Action, sometimes referred to as the Cairo Consensus, was remarkable in its recognition that reproductive health and rights, as well as women’s empowerment and gender equality, are cornerstones of population and development programmes.

The Programme of Action does follow this approach, to the detriment of those who are supposed to be helped. It underemphasizes the sciences of demography and economics, and overemphasizes women’s empowerment, gender “equality” and the fertility reduction imperative through “family planning”, which always includes contraception and often includes abortion.

The effect of ICPD was, and continues to be, to insert problematic language into UN and global discourse, phrases constructed out of controversial concepts with no basis in international law. “Reproductive health and rights” and “sexual rights” evolved and came together, by design, within a new construct. Having achieved that special UN status symbol, an abbreviation, SRHR, is everywhere, a growing constellation of “rights” now understood to include abortion, contraception and even an array of sexual orientations.

Long-time pro-abortion UN activist and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed the thinking common to many at the UN regarding the supposed necessity of abortion at a major UN conference in 2010, 16 years after Cairo:

… I will say that I’ve worked in this area for many years. And if we’re talking about maternal health, you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.[1]

International law does not guarantee “sexual rights” or the “right” to abortion, but UN language invoking the Programme of Action as its authority has been widely promulgated implying otherwise. A general understanding that legalized abortion can be considered within the women’s rights framework is now firmly in place.

We see the effects of ICPD in UN resolutions, conference outcome documents, and high-level reports. If the topic touches on maternal health, development, children and adolescents, violence or discrimination against women, education, or even migration, it is almost certain that SRHR will be there, with ICPD cited as its authority, even though legal experts point out that ICPD is not legally binding, and that SRHR as it is now understood is not even in the document. In fact, language exists in the Programme of Action that is very difficult to square with the now-common promotion of abortion.

One paragraph (8.25) states that changes in abortion law cannot be imposed on States, but must be enacted by national legislative processes; that in no case is abortion ever to be used as a method of family planning; and that efforts must be made to limit recourse to abortion. These improvements were the result of hard-fought negotiations, but since the document lacks unambiguous assertions of the right to life from conception, ICPD has been co-opted to promote abortion.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new 15-year plan and follow-up to the expiring UN Millennium Development Goals, are now being negotiated. Both aim to reduce global levels of morbidity, mortality, hunger and poverty, within a rights-based framework, meeting certain benchmarks in the given timeframe. The current draft SDG document has as one target (target 5.6) to ensure universal access to SRHR in accordance with the Programme of Action of the ICPD and the Beijing Platform for Action. Recalling Mrs. Clinton’s statement above, it is not unreasonable to foresee that target 5.6 will be used to direct enormous funding and political pressure to decriminalize abortion globally.

UNFPA states, “Although not legally binding, the Cairo ICPD Programme of Action is an important step in recognizing reproductive rights internationally. It represents the political consensus of 184 nations.” The truth, however, is that the Programme of Actions in no way enjoyed complete consensus. Twenty-three States submitted oral or written statements expressing strong reservations to sections of the Programme of Action, which exempts them from obligation to implement the objectionable text. The States’ reservations make wonderful reading, and prolifers should be familiar with them.

For example, the reservation submitted by Honduras states that their government “…accepts the concepts of ‘family planning’, ‘sexual health’, ‘reproductive health’, ‘maternity without risk’, ‘regulation of fertility’, ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘sexual rights’ so long as these terms do not include ‘abortion’ or ‘termination of pregnancy’.

The Holy See also clearly rejected any language that could be construed to endorse abortion and went on record as opposing entire chapters of the Programme of Action.

The States’ reservations to the Programme of Action, along with the wonderful ongoing work of prolife law groups and others to limit ICPD’s potential to do harm, give us hope, but vigilance will always be needed.

Mary Langlois is the United Nations liaison for Human Life International.
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