The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
— Dylan Thomas
Historical turning points are notoriously difficult to identify. While they are occurring, few notice, and even those who do misread the signs and portents. Later, we may know something happened, but exactly what or when or where is hard to say. Many things that seem momentous at the time — the fall of Communism is a recent example — definitively close one phase in global history, but may not change the world as much as we anticipated they might. Others seem trivial — witness the strikes in the shipyards at Gdansk — and have repercussions far beyond anything immediately in view. Events are deceptive and our reactions to them usually still more so.
Yet even after we have given ourselves a strong injection of historical humility, we must say that in 1994 something extraordinary occurred in Cairo.
Certainly the main adversaries in this drama saw it in almost world-historical terms. Credible sources in the Vatican reported that the Holy Father thought of almost nothing else toward the end of the summer. In fact, during a private audience last spring, he told Dr. Nafis Sadik, the Executive Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and the Secretary General of the Cairo Conference, “What is at stake here is the very future of humanity.” The Clinton administration also announced its belief that Cairo and population issues present us with a pivotal moment in human history. Part of that moment — for the administration and for several European spokesmen such as Norway Prime Minister Gro Bruntland — seemed to include establishing an international right to abortion. Some of this ideological fervor was obscured when the administration went into one of its now patented policy flip-flops after it came under pressure in the final pre-conference weeks. Several elected officials were forced into artfully dodging direct questions and, in no small number of cases, lying outright. The Holy See and the United States may both have overreacted to what will turn out to be merely one more utopian and impractical UN document. But words, even mushy United Nations-ese, matter. If the Conference Draft Program is carried out and the momentum it will create is not opposed by some new forces, we have just witnessed the precise historical moment at which many hands signed the paper that doubled the globe of death and halved our human city.
For let us not indulge in false optimism: the final Cairo program is a death-dealing document. Cairo was supposed to have three main goals: empowering women through education; lowering infant and maternal mortality through improved emergency services; and controlling population growth. But both the draft and final program put their treasure where their heart — apparently — lies. Nearly all of the $17 billion allocated will go to population control programs that push contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion. As for education and mortality, the two parts of the program the Holy See supported, there are no allocations. Developing countries are merely told to go find other funds. The Holy See was miraculously successful in getting all references to abortion placed in a negative context throughout the final text. That was no small achievement and remains a reason for hope if the Vatican is joined by other groups and individuals in the years to come. But absent many more such efforts the UN program will clearly create the machinery for taking the first step toward the worldwide contraception and abortion passionately sought and supported by the developed nations.
Timothy Wirth, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, stated at a policy forum in Washington just after Cairo that he felt he had been “involved in history.” In fact, he called the Vatican and other opponents as “outside the stream of history,” and characterized Cairo as an important first step to be continued at both the upcoming UN Conference on Social Development in Copenhagen and next year’s UN Conference on the Status of Women in Beijing. Both of these events will try to help “history” hurry up in ways worth watching. In May of 1993, Wirth gave a speech intended to clarify administration policy that abortion is a basic human right which national sovereignty cannot curtail: “A government which is violating basic human rights should not hide behind the defense of sovereignty. Difficult as it is, we must also discuss thoroughly the issue of abortion. . . . Our position is to support reproductive choice, including access to safe abortion.”
Much of what happened at Cairo had been carefully prepared ahead of time by Wirth and people like him who knew exactly what they wanted and what they could get during this round. The Draft Plan of Action reflected that. UN Conference procedures then made much of the subsequent course of debate predictable. But there were more subtle signs that came to the surface during the Cairo debate which are even more ominous than the words of the text.
One of the truly new things in Cairo was the way hostile conference participants were publicly allowed to interrupt Gail Quinn, a member of the Holy See’s delegation. Several news organizations reported the attack on Quinn. None, however, carried the sequel. The UN’s customary etiquette requires that national representatives listen to other national representatives, whatever their views. Thus, Saddam Hussein’s hired liar, Tariq Aziz, Fidel Castro, and “leaders” from the former Soviet Bloc were always at least accorded a silent hearing.
At Cairo, the antinatalist bloc showed that it regards this basic international courtesy as not applying to Catholics and others who represent traditional sexual morality. The Dutch chairman has in past years himself made withering comments about the Holy See while carrying out his job as moderator, another bad sign of the contempt that is now a progressive trait. But the booing went too far. The Ambassador from Benin rose to say how “disgraceful” such behavior was and how he had never seen such a thing happen in the United Nations in his years as a diplomat. He argued passionately that everyone has a right to speak however unwelcome their views and should not be deterred “not here, not ever.” A large number of the delegates cheered.
How to account for the apparent contradiction? International Planned Parenthood claimed to have placed around 200 members on over 90 national delegations. We can bet that these delegates were neither experienced diplomats nor very concerned about formal procedure. The cheers for proper behavior probably represented the majority view among the international bureaucrats. But we have been warned: like AIDS activists in the United States, a goodly portion of the population activists in the world regard the rightness of their cause as trumping all the constraints of civilized exchange. And religious groups who are not “in the stream of history” can.henceforth expect to be treated as even a Leonid Brezhnev never was.
Timothy Wirth had already set a particularly bad example in this regard. During preparatory meetings in New York this spring, he scolded Archbishop Renato Martino, the head of the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations: “We’ve been very patient with you!” And though serving as an appointed official in a democratically elected government, Wirth has replied to U.S. citizens who challenge him at public forums with remarks such as: “I’m not going to answer that, that’s hogwash!”
At the risk of being unkind, but accurate, calling Wirth a Hollow Man, or in current jargon “an empty suit,” would be to give him a certain unwarranted definiteness and dignity. Leaving aside the positions he took at Cairo, Wirth’s overall vision of the world is such that only a longtime practitioner of a now very rare form of liberal politics could believe. For example, Mr. Wirth waxed eloquent this fall over the “lessons of Cairo,” which in his reading show that “Americans want to support the United Nations” and, even more astonishingly, that the process created a new paradigm for how the United Nations can operate in the future on a whole series of other progressive initiatives. Basically, what Wirth means by this is that in the future the great political powers will not dictate to the world, but international activists will develop support from Non-governmental Organizations on a wide variety of issues ranging from population to environmentalism. Perhaps Jimmy Carter can be appointed roving ambassador for this purpose.
Wirth is particularly enthusiastic about Cairo as a turning point for going beyond the North-South, rich-poor conflicts that, he believes, grew out of the Cold War. Now, he says, a South-South partnership, led by countries like Egypt that he thinks have successfully set up population programs, will take the initiative away from the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. Put this way, who could oppose it? The world’s various peoples and small groups will be taking even international government away from the bureaucrats. But there’s one small cloud on the horizon in this rosy scenario: the Rockefeller Foundation, as Wirth admits, has bankrolled this new partnership. It does not take a conspiracy theorist to suspect that, just as in the heyday of Liberation Theology, we can look forward to a subtle ventriloquism in this “South-South” dialogue. First World intellectuals and leaders will create, subsidize, and bless those who mouth First World ideas in Third World languages. (The governments of the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, and other developed nations will still, as they are doing for the Cairo program, carry the financial burden.) The result is likely to be about as indigenous and independent a Southern voice as was Latin American Marxism. Yet this will be our brave new United Nations system if Undersecretary Wirth and the Rockefeller Foundation have anything to say about it, starting in Copenhagen and Beijing.
We should be clear about what all this bureaucratic machinery will mean. The testy exchanges at the end of the summer between the Clinton administration and the Vatican were characterized in several quarters as merely different interpretations of the Cairo conference draft program. Vice President Gore assured everyone just before the conference began that this administration does not seek radical goals, that it respects the Holy See but thought it was misreading the Cairo text. Vatican spokesmen Joaquin Navarro-Valls responded with a sharp attack on Gore. Gore’s backpedalling was welcome, and shows that this administration will always back off when confronted. But the Holy See had and has every reason to fear the administration’s intentions.
Though many of the following points have already been reported in news accounts, it is probably worthwhile to cite chapter and verse again here so that there can be no mistake:
— In March 1994, the Clinton delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women attempted to introduce a resolution urging the international protection of “women’s reproductive rights, including access to safe, voluntary, legal abortion.” Because of opposition from other countries, who saw this as establishing an international right to abortion, the resolution was withdrawn.
— That same month, Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent a cable to all U.S. diplomatic and consular posts stating that “the United States believes access to safe, legal, and voluntary abortion is a fundamental right of all women.” Only in the last few weeks before Cairo, under mounting controversy, did White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta say that “some unfortunate language” in the cables has created a mistaken impression.
— In June, however, President Clinton himself used some of that same “unfortunate” language in a speech at the State Department to clarify the administration’s position.
— In late August, Vice President Gore held a press conference in Washington to respond to criticisms of the administration, where he argued that “The United States has not sought and will not seek to establish any international right to an abortion. That is a red herring.”
We could easily lengthen this list over several pages, but perhaps the above suffices to make a point.
With all due respect to Gore (and Tim Wirth, who began taking the same line under the same pressure), the vice president either had not followed the cable traffic and diplomatic activities of his own administration very closely, or he has an odd notion of what it means to try to establish a right. These seem to be the only alternatives, unless we think it possible to believe that our vice president (or Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs) was simply lying. The choice among these possibilities is not a pretty one. The administration’s words and deeds on the international right to abortion have been crystal clear. In fact, one of Undersecretary Wirth’s assistants, Richard Cornelius, has remarked since Cairo that abortion is legal in the United States and the administration’s view has been, “In general, reproductive choice should be extended. We live by that in the United States and it would be hypocritical to say otherwise.”
For all its vagaries, the Cairo document will be implemented in the framework of U.S. policies of this kind with the Clintonites at the helm. As the program stands, it promises so many rights and pursues so many goals that it authorizes UN officials to pursue virtually any population policies they wish. Coupled with definitions of “reproductive rights” and “family planning” by bodies like the World Health Organization, the Cairo conference could easily lead to a global right to government-subsidized abortion on demand. And given the incentives for aggressive population control and the potential threats of aid withdrawal that the developed nations are directing toward developing nations, the U.S. stance is crucial.
It is true that anyone with the requisite hardiness can wander over the trackless wastes of the conference program and come upon stray phrases that tiptoe around abortion and pay nodding respect to the sovereignty of individual nations on all the issues. Under the UN Charter, it could not be otherwise: the United Nations is prohibited from interfering in the internal affairs of any sovereign nation. And since the 1984 Mexico City Conference on Population, the international consensus has barred using abortion as a means of family planning. Thanks to Vatican leadership, this consensus was reaffirmed at Cairo, in the teeth of opposition from the Clinton administration and Europe.
Curiously, the UN Conference on the Status of Women will be held in Beijing next year, which is to say, in the capital of one of the most coercive regimes on the face of the earth, where forced abortions for population control and elective abortions for sex selection already tyrannize women and prevent many from ever being born. What has been the feminist response to the choice of this venue? It is hard to say, and that in itself is a telling silence. Cities and states in America are routinely threatened with boycotts by feminist and gay groups reacting to local policies they find discriminatory. Yet China seems not to have gotten the slightest hint of criticism from the women eager to converge on Beijing.
Forced abortions and sex-selection abortions are serious problems for most people. The only explanation for the silence of western feminists is that they do not particularly mind coercion when it is applied in the service of their causes: Abortion to control population, or for any other liberal purpose, is clearly a right to be preserved and extended. Chinese women probably need to get used to more frequent abortion. As for the sexual imbalance that has occurred in the Chinese population, that is a tougher question. But feminists have never really been advocates of women as such; rather they want the right sort of women to appear. Genital mutilation in Africa is bad because it cuts off the sexual revolution before it can take root. Fewer Chinese women, however, especially if they like bigger families, may not be so bad. Most western feminists seem to believe that women in the developing world are suffering from a kind of sexual “false consciousness” that needs attention from the more enlightened.
In the final analysis, Cairo talks about voluntary population goals, but cannot achieve them unless women are convinced by their governments to want fewer children. The re-education and coercion required have some historical precedents in this century. And this might suggest how we might best see Cairo in its larger historical perspective. We may have to think about population programs in the future the way we once thought about communism in the past. We already have our 30 million dead in America over the past twenty years from abortion. European countries add at least several million more to that number. The communist system got a quick start in 1917, but even communism took a few decades to sacrifice tens of millions to ideology. Nonetheless, until only yesterday, communism and the Soviet Union were beloved by many progressives and respected by others who thought the methods wrong but the aims right. It took 72 years, from 1917 to 1989, for the horror to be admitted, even by those who had helped perpetrate and preserve it. Roe v. Wade, 1973; Cairo, 1994. Let’s hope history is not a guide this time. Otherwise, we may have to wait until 2050 or later for this round of holocausts, once again set in motion in the name of human progress, to cause a change of heart.