How the UN is Exploiting the Population Issue


September 1, 2003

For over half a century, well-intentioned, well-educated people in the West were taught to dread an inevitable ((population bomb,” caused by a worldwide explosion of births and a dearth of resources. Examples abound:

• In 1946 Julian Huxley, first head of UNESCO, wrote, “War is a less inevitable threat to mankind than is population increase.”

• In 1967 William and Paul Paddock wrote Famine—1975!, demanding forced population control.

• In 1968 Paul Ehrlich’s best-seller, The Population Bomb, asserted: “In the 1970s, the world will undergo famine. Hundreds of millions will starve…. The cancer of population growth must be cut out…or we will breed ourselves into oblivion.”

• In 1972 the Club of Rome published Limits of Growth, advocating population control; the Club of Rome refused to disavow the book until ten years later, when it admitted it had “exaggerated the situation to awaken public concern.”

• Pop-science prophet Carl Sagan appeared 25 times on Johnny Carson’s TV show to warn of too much population and too few resources. While baby boomers worried that the ski slopes were overcrowded, the general conclusion was that responsible people should not have more than two children.

• Some “good people” even agreed that forced population control might be necessary in a country as big as China.

As we look back on the predictions, we must admit that the doomsayers were at least partially right. The 20th century witnessed a population growth unprecedented in world history. Because of better health care, nutrition, education, and sanitation, millions of children in developing countries didn’t die in infancy. Roughly 20 years were added to the life span of every human being. According to United Nations (UN) statistics, from 1900 to 2000, world population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion persons, with 80 percent of that growth occurring since 1950.

Yet, even with these skyrocketing numbers, there was no worldwide famine or dearth of resources. Other calamities—wars, genocide, AIDS—certainly befell humanity, but not the Malthusian doom that had been so widely predicted.

And this spring, when the UN Commission on Population and Development met for its annual review of the state of the world’s population, Joseph Chamie, the head of the highly respected United Nations Population Division, reported to commission delegates that something very new had occurred. As a result of extraordinary changes in population growth rates, he said, “redistribution of the world’s population was well under way” with many fewer young people and many more elderly. In Chamie’s view, “That change will result in a new international population order.”

Two years ago, his division had projected a world population of 9.3 billion by mid-century. This year, that dropped to 8.9 billion. Where did those 400 million people go? He summed up his answer in four words—more deaths, fewer births.

Chamie was merely summarizing the main points in the report titled World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision, prepared by the population division, a unit made up of demographers, statisticians, and researchers who study population change with objectivity and scientific integrity. The Population Division is not to be confused with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the activist UN agency that works for “stabilization of world population” by dealing out contraceptives and condoms and pressuring governments of poor countries to adopt population-control policies.

According to the report, about half of the drop of 400 million persons in the projection was due to an increase in the number of projected deaths—mainly resulting from HIV/AIDS. The other half was the result of fewer births, as women worldwide for a variety of reasons were persuaded to have fewer children. For the first time, the UN projected that future fertility levels in developed countries as well as the majority of developing countries would drop below 2.1 children per woman (the level needed to ensure long-term replacement of a population) sometime in the 21st century. At this rate, by 2050, three out of four countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will have fertility rates below replacement levels.

Contraception is one of the main reasons why. The population division reported that by 2001, 62 percent or 650 million of the more than 1 billion women worldwide who were either married or living “in a consensual union” were using contraceptives. In developed countries, 70 percent of these women use them. In less developed countries, a surprising 60 percent are on birth control.

The prevalence of contraceptives is the result of a relentless push by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and UNFPA. For instance, among UN secretariat staff, the story is told that when a high-ranking UNFPA staffer paid an inspection visit to a UNFPA-stocked “basic health clinic” in a Vietnamese village, she had the bad luck to break her leg. UNFPA’s “basic health clinic” had no aspirin, no bandages, and no splints, just shelf upon shelf of condoms and contraceptives. UNFPA had to airlift the lady out of the village.

According to the population division, nine out of ten contraceptive-users worldwide rely on “modern methods”—most commonly female sterilization (20 percent of married women worldwide), IUDs (15 percent), and oral pills (8 percent).

Of these birth-control methods, the population division says “short-acting and reversible” methods are more popular in developed countries than they are in developing countries. In poor countries, “longer-acting and highly effective clinical methods” (sterilization) are more common. This backs up reports by the media and by human-rights workers that sterilization has been forced on poor women by governments not only in China but also in other developing countries, such as Peru.

The Holy See and Its New Ally

In this climate, for over 30 years, the Holy See has played an active role at the UN as a Permanent Observer State with the right to speak in most sessions and the right to negotiate and vote in certain conferences.

When it appeared in UN conference rooms, the tiny Holy See delegation was made up of a handful of Vatican diplomats and one or two laypeople—often including its redoubtable and knowledgeable adviser, John Klink. Its concerns ran the gamut: fighting for recognition of the dignity of the human person, strengthening the institution of the family, promoting motherhood, and opposing abortion. Occasionally, the Holy See got help from a brave Latin American delegate or two (sometimes despite extreme pressure from their own capitals) and from some Islamic delegations.

The role the Holy See played could be surprising to some. As Archbishop Dairmuid Martin, a veteran of UN debates (and now coadjutor bishop of Dublin, Ireland), has said, the Holy See is not in favor of an “unlimited growth in world population, nor in favor of governmental or international programs that impose limits. For many years the Holy See has repeated what Vatican Council II confirmed on the right of parents to freely choose the number of children, to establish the temporal distance between births and to evaluate the economic means to achieve these objectives…. In all this, the task of the Church is to support, to be close to families, to favor more suitable family policies in any part of the world and, in particular, to be on the side of women and children, who constitute the greater part of the population.”

Unfortunately, in too many debates the Holy See remained the lonely voice of conscience, reminding delegates of what Veritatis Splendor calls the “eternal truth about God and man.”

That changed in 2001. When President George W. Bush’s team arrived on the UN stage, they amazed friends and foes with a series of decisive moves.

In February 2001 in Nairobi, Kenya, at the final preparatory session for the “Habitat” conference on human settlements, one Bush state department official, fresh to UN conferences, admitted he was “amazed at what the UN was up to.” Specifically, he said, “One of the worst things that happened at the UN in the last decade was the diminishment of the family.” Undaunted, the United States called on the conference to recognize the importance of the family in the implementation of the Habitat agenda—and won.

In February 2002 in New York at a preparatory session for the UN World Summit for Children, the head of the U.S. delegation, Deputy Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs E. Michael Southwick, formally told delegates that the United States rejected language in the draft text that asserted there was an obligation on the part of states to ratify the UN’s deeply flawed Convention on the Rights of the Child. “As a non-party to the convention,” he said, “the United States does not accept obligations based on it, nor do we accept that it is the best or only framework for developing programs and policies to benefit children.”

In May 2002 in New York at the World Summit for Children, after 30 hours of often-bitter non-stop negotiations, the United States pointed out—correctly—that the Cairo program includes phrases such as “reproductive health services” and “reproductive rights” that were understood at the United Nations as code words for abortion. At America’s behest, the final document was approved without any reference to “reproductive health services.” One Bush official commented that the language was “general enough so that it didn’t suggest abortion was appropriate for children…. We had a consensus document that met U.S. concerns.” Another Bush official announced that “nothing in the reaffirmation of the Cairo progamme of action was to be interpreted [as meaning] that the U.S. supported abortion.” Ambassador Sichan Siv, American representative to the Economic and Social Council and to the population commission, noted at the Children’s Summit that “children’s rights must always take account of the rights and responsibilities of parents.”

In July 2002 the Bush administration dramatically announced it would cease its $34 million annual funding of UNFPA, contending that UNFPA aided Chinese government agencies that enforce population control. Despite the fact that there are still high-level state department officials who are decidedly pro-abortion, the state department issued a statement saying that the United States was restricted from helping finance any organization that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”

In October 2002 in Bangkok, Thailand, at a UN regional population meeting to prepare for a December conference of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), U.S. negotiators, then including John Klink, followed approval of a text to be adopted by the December final session with a formal statement that the United States was prepared to “take note of” the Cairo program of action but not “reaffirm” it. During the final session of ESCAP, a state department official asserted that “some participants in the session are seeking to force the U.S. to agree to language supporting abortion…. Our goals are to focus on poverty, health and education, and respect for women and the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

Looking back on Bangkok, a Bush administration official recalled recently, “In that prepcom almost every country said, ‘We don’t want abortion as a means of family planning.’ If that is what they want, the U.S. position shouldn’t be so difficult to accept.”

The official continued, “It’s just a bad idea for freedom in general to say to parents they can’t have more than two children. The fundamental issue is: Are people worthy of respect? The answer has to be yes. Too many people at the UN are trying to reduce population questions to a question of numbers and economics. UNFPA staff talk about a ‘demographic dividend’ if there are fewer children. But this means fewer children to support the aging population, and as the pro-family advocate Allan Carlson says, it’s like ‘eating the seed corn.”

Not everyone welcomed the Vatican’s new ally. A month after America’s stand at Bangkok, Steven Sinding, head of IPPF, told a gathering of Nordic government leaders that they faced a “moment of peril.” The perception was spreading that the “population crisis” was over, with the result that population-control funding had dropped. Still more threatening, Sinding said IPPF and its supporters were fighting a “conservative backlash” over population control, “reproductive services,” and the worldwide legalization of abortion.

Sinding declared: “One cannot ignore the assault on the Cairo program of action mounted by the United States of America and its allies in the Vatican and a small handful of other countries with fundamentalist governments. These people believe that the Cairo program of action is a radical feminist agenda and that it represents an assault on traditional family values and sexual mores…. The recently concluded Bangkok conference was only the most recent and dramatic example of a systematic effort on the part of these forces of reaction to undo all that was accomplished through tortuous negotiation and hard-fought compromise at Cairo.”

The Population Commission’s Conclusion

It all came to a head at the Commission on Population and Development this spring.

As the commission reviewed the various reports from the population division and UNFPA, commission members remained cool and deliberate. In keeping with the session’s theme of “population, education, and development,” delegates dutifully offered boilerplate speeches on their governments’ efforts to improve education for their own or other countries’ citizens. Delegates from the European Union (EU) and some other countries reaffirmed their governments’ support for the Cairo and Beijing programs of action. One evening during the session, a few delegates and many NGO supporters of UNFPA took time off to hear a lecture in which economics megastar Professor Jeffrey Sachs, an adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, offered a few sympathetic words on the need for development of poor countries—and also, despite the new population trends, the need for abortion-on-demand.

Finally, on Friday, the population commission wound up its business by adopting a resolution “reaffirming” the Cairo and Beijing programs of action and encouraging the population division to continue with its research and UNFPA to continue with its programs.

Following the vote, Ambassador Siv took the floor. The United States joined the consensus on the resolution, he said, but only with the understanding that the resolution’s reaffirmation of the Cairo and Beijing programs of action “does not constitute a reaffirmation of any language in those documents that can be interpreted as promoting the legalization or expansion of abortion services.” The United States supported “voluntary choice in family planning,” but quoting from a crucial pro-life paragraph in the Cairo document, he stressed the American view that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning, and that women with recourse to abortion should be given humane treatment and counseling.” Continuing, he said that “the United States emphasizes its commitment to programs that address greater male involvement in pregnancy prevention and voluntary family planning efforts, and the need to stress the practices of delaying sexual initiation, abstinence, monogamy, fidelity, partner reduction, and condom use in order to, among other reasons, prevent HIV infection.”

Siv declared that the United States stressed the need for family stability, the role of fathers, parent-child communications on abstinence, delayed sexual initiation, and responsible sexual behavior. The United States, he said, “emphasizes the importance it attaches to the involvement of parents in decisions affecting children and adolescents in all aspects of sexual and reproductive health.”

In the spectators’ gallery, one pro-life NGO sighed happily and said, “U.S. statements like the one by Ambassador Siv today were exactly the miracle we were praying for all these years. I never dreamt I’d hear the U.S. say that in this hall.”

Changing the Historical Record

EU countries and some G-77 developing countries stiffened at the U.S. statement, aware that although some 20 countries had qualified their support for the Cairo program in 1994 and 40 had done the same for the Beijing plan of action in 1995, the Clinton administration delegates had fully supported the final documents in both conferences. One EU delegate charged, “The U.S. approved this language in 1994 and 1995. Now they are trying to change the historical record.”

A Bush administration official replied privately, “It’s a complex question. The basic point, and the official U.S. position, is that Cairo happened and we’re not denying that. But now we’re writing a new direction for a new century. We have no problem in referring to or taking note of past documents like Cairo or Beijing. But we’re not reaffirming them. The Cairo program of action has been used by groups like IPPF to support abortion. This administration does not support using Cairo to justify abortion, to promote abortion availability or to propagate ‘abortion rights.’ …It is not the role of the UN to expand the provision of abortion.”

The official continued, “In negotiating, we don’t like things to be unclear. Let’s refer to Cairo—but let’s not say we reaffirm what was unclear then and was later interpreted to support a right to abortion.”

In another action, the population commission took note of its provisional agenda for its March 2004 session when the commission has scheduled a “review and appraisal” of the last ten years of implementation of the 1994 Cairo program. How this will be handled remains a highly contentious issue. The U.S. understanding is that the session will not be open to non-commission members and that “review and appraisal” will be handled in a single day; the EU, some developing countries, UNFPA, and IPPF, on the other hand, are still pushing for more.

Will the United States be able to avert a fight on the floor over implementation of the Cairo program of action when the population commission meets for its ten-year review? The March 2004 session offers the potential for a passionate debate on abortion and the implementation of the Cairo program—exactly what Siv was alluding to. There’s also the possibility of a clash over recognition of the family and motherhood, plus contention over promotion of abstinence programs for children.

In the opinion of one apprehensive Bush administration official, “There’s no will at top levels of the state department to do anything at all to resist using the Cairo program of action to support abortion. So far there are no U.S. ongoing preparations for Cairo+10. Meanwhile the European Union and the IPPF are busy making preparations.”

The View from the U.S. Mission

In his sunny office across the street from UN headquarters a few days after the population commission finished its business, Siv remained unperturbed. A naturalized citizen born in Cambodia, the ambassador spent a year in a Khmer Rouge prison camp before escaping to the West in 1976. He doesn’t rattle easily.

Siv explained, “This is a new administration. It’s family-friendly; it supports the rights of parents, and it does not support an international right to abortion. That has been clear since the presidential campaign. This administration is firm in this position.

“U.S. aid to family planning has not diminished,” he continued, “but more of it is being given not through multilateral organizations such as UNFPA, but through USAID [the state department agency for aid to development]. Overall in 2002, the U.S. gave $446 million to 60 countries, and $50 million of that to maternal health. In 2003, the U.S. will give the same amount.”

And if the EU and UNFPA mount a battle for abortion at next year’s session?

“We’re ready,” he replied with a smile.


  • Ellen Lukas

    Ellen Lukas was a Newsweek correspondent and was later news analyst for the UN secretary-general. At the time she wrote this article, she had recently served four years as a delegate with the Holy See UN mission.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...