The American Feminist
Imagine that at age 15, you are married off to a man you do not know. Little more than a child yourself, you are expected to bear as many sons as your body can endure although the risk is high that you will die in the process. Your babies come so closely that many die of malnutrition. Other children die of diarrhea from drinking contaminated water. You are responsible for farming a small patch of land to support your family, but you do not own it and cannot use it as collateral for credit. Illiterate, you have few skills to build your income and a better life for yourself. These are the obstacles faced by millions of women in the developing world.With great fanfare, the United Nations convened the Conference on Population and Development this past September in Cairo. The U.N. holds such conferences every 10 years to build a world consensus on the role that population issues play in development, and to determine the best response.
While agreements reached are nonbinding, they are sometimes used to influence aid policies of wealthy nations and the public policies of developing nations.
For example, at the 1984 population conference, the United States announced the "Mexico City policy," which prohibited funding for foreign nongovernmental organizations, such as International Planned Parenthood Federation, that actively promoted abortion as a method of family planning in foreign countries. However, because this pronouncement was nonbinding, the Clinton administration overturned the "Mexico City policy" shortly after taking office.
Historically, the population debate tends to be one of extremes--those who believe that rapid population growth has little bearing on economic development versus those who believe it is the key constraint against development. This debate spilled over into previous population conferences in the form of opposition to family planning programs on the one side and support of establishment of ambitious target population growth rates on the other.
What was lost in the debate were the voices of our sisters in the developing world. What was not recognized was that there are strong linkages between fertility rates and other factors such as level of education, income, and child-survival rates. Therefore, women's groups throughout the world pushed for a new agenda at the 1994 conference that shifts the focus away from population control to a more holistic approach emphasizing the empowerment of women.
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of only two women to address the conference, promoted this approach when she said that the most effective way to tackle population growth was "by tackling infant mortality, by providing villages with electrification, by raising an army of women...to educate our mothers, sisters, daughters in child welfare and population control, by setting up a bank run by women for women, to help women achieve economic independence, and to have the wherewithal to make independent choices."
But this positive shift was overshadowed by the abortion issue. Sadly, a number of world leaders, including our own, still have much to learn about the real needs of women. The Clinton administration wished to include in the agreement "access to safe abortion" under the guise of reproductive health services and used statistics of illegal abortions as justification. But this use of statistics misses the point: abortion is a reflection of the problems that women face, not the solution.
Prime Minister Bhutto again challenged the participants: "I dream...of a world, where we can commit our social resources to the development of human life and not to its destruction."
She warned conference participants that "this conference must not be viewed by the teeming masses of the world as a universal social charter seeking to impose adultery, abortion...and other such matters on individuals, societies and religions which have their own social ethos."
Pro-life forces were able to mitigate some of the effects of this push to include abortion. As a result of the protestations of a number of participants (not just the Vatican, as media reports seemed to indicate), a compromise was reached that stated that abortion is not a method of family planning and limits the safe access criteria to nations that already have legal abortions. While this is an oxymoron, it eases the pressure on the majority of nations that do not have extreme abortion laws to revise these laws in order to receive aid from wealthy nations.
So what are the implications of this conference on U.S. policy?
Currently, U.S. foreign economic assistance legislation prohibits abortions and coercive family planning programs and ensures that family-planning programs supported by U.S. funds must cover a range of options, both natural and artificial, that have been approved for use in the U.S.
In its overhaul of this legislation, known as the "Peace, Prosperity and Democracy Act (PPDA)," the administration has dropped the exclusion against abortion funding (except coercion). If this legislation passes as is, your taxes, in theory, could be used to fund sex- selection abortions in India.
Therefore, we must not become complacent about the threat that abortion still poses to the true empowerment of women.
It is our responsibility as pro-life feminists to see that the voices of our sisters in the developing world are not lost.J.M. Hoffman
Reprinted from The American Feminist, Fall 1994