Catholic Support for the ICPD Programme of Action
Entre Nous, Summer/Autumn 1999
Frances Kissling

Five years ago in Cairo, the world's nations came together at the United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development to endorse a 20-year plan for dealing with those crucial and complex issues. In Cairo, delegations crafted a rights-based approach that linked population and development and put the needs of women and men — rather than demographic targets — at the heart of public policy initiatives. While the vast majority of nations favored Cairo's Programme of Action, a handful of UN member states — the Holy See the most voluble among them, joined by a few Muslim-influenced states and three or four countries with large Catholic populations — endeavored mightily to block consensus. In the end, these member states had to settle for stating reservations to the final document. After Cairo, however, they did not simply fold their tents, and their continued attempts to undermine Cairo agreements has caused many to especially question the Vatican's international policy role at the United Nations.

Vatican opposition
In the years since Cairo, Roman Catholic church leaders have worked in public policy arenas around the world to block implementation of the ICPD plan and other policies they have suspected of expanding access to reproductive health care. And, during the recently ended ICPD+5 process, a review of progress made toward implementing the ICPD's plan in its first five years, the Holy See delegation was among the most active.

While Permanent Observers, such as the Holy See, cannot vote in the General Assembly, in most UN conferences it is granted the full status enjoyed by UN member states, including not only a voice, but also a vote on any question that is put to a vote. During debate, the Holy See, alone among the world's religions, can make as many interventions as the member states it sits with. Historically, there has appeared to be little reason to question this unusual arrangement. Over the years, the Vatican has often engaged in the role of peacemaker on the world stage, and it has been a positive participant in the United Nations on basic health and humanitarian efforts worldwide.

At the same time, the United Nations has become in recent years an important venue for policy discussions on public health issues, including sexuality and reproduction. The church's religious tenets regarding sexuality and reproduction make it next to impossible for the Holy See to participate in the policy debate with the same public health concerns that are at the forefront of most states' interests. With its UN seat on par with governments, the church attempts to conform public policies to its religiously based views. For example, the Vatican opposes the use of condoms to help protect against the transmission of HIV/AIDS. It opposes the use of contraception even for married couples, and refuses to recognize sexuality outside lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. With the Holy See's rigid insistence on its positions as divine truth — even positions that have been rejected by the majority of Catholics and every other major world religion — the church's UN role is increasingly under suspicion as inappropriate and untenable.

Nowhere were these problems more evident than in the ICPD process. During ICPD+5, the Holy See pushed against the tide, just as it had done in Cairo. Its delegation opposed numerous proposals, including those that would call for the provision of emergency contraception to refugees, the promotion of education and use of condoms for safeguarding against HIV/AIDS, the protection of adolescents' rights to privacy and confidentiality in reproductive health matters, the inclusion of sex education in school curricula, and the training and equipping of health care workers to ensure that where abortion is legal it is safe and accessible.

The Holy See's attempts to bar general agreement on these matters were joined by only a few countries, principally the Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Iran, Argentina, and Guatemala. Notably, however, a number of countries with large Catholic populations — including Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Peru — spoke out in favor of policies that directly contradicted church positions and Holy See interventions.

"See Change"
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also challenged the Vatican. Both the Youth Delegation and a wide coalition of women's organizations issued open letters questioning Vatican positions in light of the church's teachings, especially its strong commitment to the poor and marginalized, many of whom are women. And Holy See attempts to block consensus fueled an already active campaign by NGOs to change the Vatican's status at the United Nations. The "See Change" campaign has been endorsed by hundreds of NGOs, including such diverse groups as Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, the National Coalition of American Nuns, and the French group We Are Also Church. With the premise that the Roman Catholic church should participate in the United Nations in the same way as the world's other religions — as a non-governmental organization — the campaign is calling on the UN Secretary-General to review the church's current status.

With NGO status, the Vatican would still be able to add its voice to the public policy debate. But it would no longer be on par with countries that have a genuine citizenry —women, men, and children who are directly affected by the health care policies of their governments. It would no longer, for example, so easily be able to impede decisions by the United Nations to work to prevent 600,000 women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth and to make condom education and use a major tool in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. International health issues like these are too important to allow the leaders of one religion to sit with governments at the policy table.

Frances Kissling
President, Catholics for a Free Choice
1436 U Street NW Suite 301
Washington DC 20009 USA
Tel: (+1) 202 986-6093
Fax: (+1) 202 332-7995