Crises, Tidings & Revelations: Observations from Cairo

The Cairo Conference on Population and Development was planned as the great triumph of International Planned Parenthood. The draft document was a Planned Parenthood wish list — $17 billion for contraception, abortion, and sex education. Under the guise of women’s rights, and protecting women’s health, the right to abortion was to be proclaimed a universal human right. International agencies and non-government organizations would be empowered to push for universal access to abortion, all forms of contraception, and sex education; and protect the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents, unmarried persons, and same sex couples.

The Women’s Caucus, a coalition of non-government organizations, dominated by radical feminists, was given unprecedented influence. They came to Cairo with plans already written for enforcing their triumph. In the end they were fighting to keep the gains they had made at previous conferences.

Cairo was not a level playing field. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), an umbrella organization for Family Planning Associations around the world, had established itself as the major force at the conference. The head of the main negotiating session, Fred Sai, is the president of IPPF. The electronic bulletin board announced a closed caucus for all IPPF delegates. Msgr. Elliot of the Vatican speculated that the Conference draw might be the largest Planned Parenthood conference in history. A document circulated in Cairo named over 200 delegates and staff as members of IPPF. Although all the names could not be independently confirmed, any one trying to lobby delegates soon discovered that most of them were in the pay of IPPF or worked for government agencies that were dependent on IPPF funding. Many of the Third World countries are too poor to send delegates to international conferences so the UN Fund for Population gives grants for IPPF people to come as representatives of their nations. These delegates are under tremendous pressure to support the IPPF line even when their national laws protect the right to life and the family.

Given the tremendous power of IPPF it is not surprising that the conference approved a commitment of $17 billion to fund “family planning programs.” It remains to be seen how much will actually be appropriated, since much of the money is supposed to come from poor countries and from the poor themselves. The developing countries were furious that real development needs were being neglected and all the funding directed to population control. Doctors from developing countries complained that they had no antibiotics, vaccines, or even aspirin to give the people, but their cabinets are full of condoms and IUD’s.

Even the delegates who supported contraceptive programs know that these programs will not, as IPPF literature promised, solve the problems of poverty, illiteracy, and the oppression of women. A doctor from Central America, who represented a Family Planning association, told me that the only thing that will pull people out of poverty is hope. His parents, who were terribly poor, kept telling him that he could become a doctor, and he had been determined not to let them down. An African woman, also working for her government’s Family Planning department, echoed his words, explaining that her country needed basic development and that the West was only interested in counting people.

The developing nations may be trapped by their dependence on aid and loans from the developed nations, but they do not believe that their “colonial masters” have their best interests at heart. Excerpts from a secret U.S. National Security Council study, “NSSM 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests,” were circulated at the conference. They confirmed the developing nations’ conviction that those nations whose fertility rates are all below replacement fear that population growth in the Third World will threaten their economic dominance.

This distrust was increased by the fact that the developed nations seemed far more interested in pushing a radical sexual agenda than in addressing the questions of real development. To add insult to injury the U.S. and Germany opposed the “right of legal migrants to family reunification.” This caused an Algerian diplomat to accuse them of “using this question as a kind of contraceptive to keep population growth down.”

The U.S. delegation made a poor showing in Cairo. According to the head of a delegation from one of the Muslim nations, the U.S. team was “green, inexperienced, and easily rattled.” The delegation included the president and 200 members of Planned Parenthood. Bella Abzug, special advisor to the U.S. delegation and head of the powerful Women’s Caucus, openly bragged that she had written the draft proposal. There was observable tension between State Department officials who were working for consensus and the activists who wanted their agenda pushed through without compromise. When it became clear that the sexual agenda was to be watered down, the radical feminists of the Women’s Caucus were furious. They had hoped that with the support of the Clinton administration they would be able to have abortion defined as a human right and then use the mechanism of the UN to force changes in national law. This hope was dashed when the Egyptians, in a brilliant move to save the conference from deadlocking, sponsored an addition to the statement of principles which stated that the implementation of the Program of Action is “the sovereign right of each country, consistent with national laws and development priorities, with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of its people.”

During my two weeks in Egypt I spent a great deal of my time talking to Egyptians. Whether Muslim or Christian, devout or liberal, they are solidly pro-family. They are concerned about Western influences, but believe that they are protected by their culture. I tried to warn them, that 30 years ago Americans believed that they too were protected from such nonsense. The conference may have opened the eyes of many Egyptians, particularly university students who attended the sessions in large numbers, to the true nature of the sexual agenda being promoted by IPPF and other Western organizations.

The Islamic community may be facing a situation similar to that experienced by Catholics and Protestants over the last 50 years: a concentrated attack on its basic moral teachings by scholars who claim to be interpreting traditional theology, but are actually twisting it to serve the sexual revolution. This attack on Islam appears to be receiving substantial backing from the liberal Islamic press, reform elements in some governments, and the Western activists.

Chief among those pushing the reinterpretation of Islam in Cairo was the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics. The Religious Consultation lists among its conveners Frances Kissling, of Catholics for a Free Choice, and Daniel Maguire, a professor of moral theology at Marquette University, both of whom are outspoken critics of Catholic moral teaching on abortion and contraception. Maguire claims to be speaking out of a Catholic tradition; but judging from a lengthy interview which Maguire gave on the plane to Cairo, he has repudiated all the major tenets of the faith. Ms. Kissling’s group has been publicly condemned by Church authorities.

The Religious Consultation sponsored a press conference and presentation in which a Muslim academic, Dr. Rifaat Hassan, a Pakistani who lectures on religious studies at the University of Louisville, offered her interpretation of Islamic teaching of abortion, contraception, and women’s rights. Her comments were challenged by a number of Muslims in the audience.

Another reason for concern over the agenda of the Religious Consultation can be found in a booklet they distributed containing speeches given at the second preparatory meeting for the Cairo conference. A Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri gave what on the surface appeared to be a scholarly dissertation on family planning and Islam. However, a collection of radical feminist essays entitled “Women and Revolution: A discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,” contains an essay by Azizah Al-Hibri which reveals her real agenda — the overthrow of all patriarchy and the establishment of a radical feminist revolution. She argues that although the revolutionary Arab Marxists don’t treat women very well, “the milieu in which the organizations operate is predominantly Muslim and conservative. To challenge its values would weaken popular support.” She, therefore, counsels Islamic feminists to wait for success of the other revolutions before pressing their claims for liberation. Although Muslims need to be very skeptical of anything sponsored by the Religious Consultation, pro-lifers in Cairo saw the possibility of real cooperation between Islam and Christianity in support of life, chastity, and family values.

Accusations were made before the conference that the Vatican was working with terrorist nations like Iran to fight women’s rights. Vatican representatives denied making any special overtures to Iran. However, Iran did use the Cairo conference to reassert its leadership in the Islamic world, and appeared to be moving away from an isolated position. While the U.S. was denouncing the Vatican for doing something it didn’t do; a member of the U.S. State Department admitted privately that the U.S. had worked with Iran to achieve a consensus between Western and Moslem nations.

The media tried to make it appear that the Vatican was blocking consensus. On the second day of the conference, Nicholas Biegman of the Netherlands called on nations he knew supported the proposal, even though they had not indicated an interest in speaking. He ignored 14 nations who wanted to speak against the proposal and called on the Vatican. The representative of the Vatican said simply that the Vatican could not accept the proposal at that time. Biegman then adjourned the session without hearing objecting nations. The next day the news around the world was: Vatican blocks consensus.

This was a clear distortion of the part played by the Vatican. Biegman was forced to apologize, but the apology received little coverage. However, the media was fascinated by the Vatican; the slightest hint that the Vatican might hold a press briefing or hand out a statement would send the media running.

The United States did not do well in Cairo. On Friday, September 9, Tim Wirth, head of the U.S. delegation, embarrassed himself by directing a security guard to remove pro-life activist Keith Tucci from the Conference. Wirth’s action was based on allegations made by a member of the Women’s Caucus that the pro-lifer was involved in the murder of the abortionists in Florida — a charge that was totally unfounded. The Egyptian police nervous about any threat to security, arrested Tucci and two other pro-lifers with him, and kept them in custody for almost 24 hours. Through the intervention of Congressman Chris Smith, the pro-lifers were freed and allowed to return to the conference.

The U.S. delegation canceled its press briefings on Saturday and Monday. The final U.S. briefing on Tuesday ending in a shouting match, when Wirth purposefully refused to call on an African activist named Spartacus who publishes a small magazine attacking Western economic imperialism in the Third World. Spartacus had waited patiently for his turn at one of the two microphones. Wirth, rather than alternate speakers, called on two speakers from the other side of the room and then abruptly stopped the briefing. Spartacus began to shout his complaints against U.S. policy, while the woman pro-lifer who had been detained for 24 hours accused the U.S. of trying to silence free speech.

These incidents, along with the NSSM 200 memo and the opposition to family unification, only added credence to the charges that the U.S. had attempted to influence the selection of delegates from Central America, and had made veiled threats to withhold aid from countries that did not support its agenda in Cairo. Wirth strongly denied the charges, and the Central American delegates who made the charges were afraid to be quoted on the record, but privately voiced a pattern of intimidation by U.S. diplomats at the highest levels. This was confirmed by the revelation of a series of cables from the State Department to all embassies instructing ambassadors to use every means at their disposal to push for support of the U.S. position in Cairo.

The final document was better than the pro-lifers had hoped, although it still contains much that is unacceptable. The pro-life community comes away from Cairo with valuable experience on how the battle is being fought, an international network, and the determination to fight the next battle in this long war — the Conference on Women in Beijing next September.


Dale O’Leary is the author of The Gender Agenda and One Man, One Woman. Her blog can be found at

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