Cairo Conference — Success Or Failure? by Stephen D. Mumford, Ph.D (December 1994)

Moments after the Cairo conference concluded, I overheard a conference organizer in a corridor claim that the conference was a huge success. Many others have now made similar claims. While they may believe this themselves, I believe they are doing humanity a disservice by making such claims, whatever their motivations. I am convinced that the Cairo meeting was a failure. Why?

According to the preamble of the conference document, the stated mission of the meeting was to decide on a plan of action for the next 20 years that would advance the goal of population stabilization below the medium United Nations projection of 9.8 billion in 2050. A study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology on July 15, 1984, examined the abortion and population growth experiences of 116 countries. This study showed that no country has ever achieved a growth rate below 1% without widespread use of abortion. By widespread use, I mean abortion rates of 350 (in the few developed countries with excellent contraceptive services and sex education) to 500 or more (mostly in developing countries) per 1000 live births. (Approximately one-third of pregnancies in the United States end in abortion and thus the U.S. rate approaches 500 abortions per 1000 live births.)

The Cairo conference retained the 1984 Mexico City position on abortion advocated by the antiabortion Reagan administration. This position holds that: (1) women do not have the “right” to choose abortion; and (2) that abortion must not be recognized as a legitimate family planning method.

Abortion is a family planning method. It is foolish to claim that abortion is not a method of family planning as Vice-President Al Gore did just prior to and again during the conference. Sixty million women get abortions each year for one reason–to control their fertility, and thus plan their families. Women should have the right to have an abortion. Abortion is not an immoral but a moral choice both for the individual woman and for the rest of us– in this overpopulated world of impoverished people destined to become even poorer. These abortion issues were certainly the two most important questions to be resolved by this conference. The Vatican won on both counts.

What are the implications of this outcome for the stated mission of the conference? First, there will be no widespread use of abortion in most countries. Second, abortion will continue to be strongly discouraged by law–thus supporting the position that it is immoral. Abortion is made unsafe by being illegal, further discouraging its use. Without widespread use of abortion, population growth rates cannot be pushed below 1% per year, and any hope of stabilizing population growth is destroyed. So the goal of stabilizing global population growth becomes unattainable, and that was the stated mission of the Cairo conference.

The Holy See won and humanity lost. Conference organizers should admit this.

The Vatican frankly dominated the Cairo conference. Most attendees were shocked that the Holy See both had the power to stop the conference in its tracks for six days, and had the resolve to exercise this power so publicly. In my view, this education of the participants was the most important outcome of the meeting in Cairo.

Now it is time to examine more closely the Holy See’s motivations. Its claim that “morality” is driving its behavior does not stand up to critical analysis. Most Americans, including American Catholics, already reject this claim outright and have widely accepted all family planning methods and abortion for themselves. Even the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences recently rejected this claim and urged limits on family size to avert “insoluble problems” caused by runaway growth, recommending that family size be limited to about two children per couple. I believe the Pontifical Academy position–and of Catholics and the rest of us who plan our families–occupies the moral high ground. Something else other than “morality” is really driving the Holy See’s behavior: Pope John Paul II himself has identified an even more powerful motivation–institutional survival.

The outcome of the conference brought to mind a statement made in 1979 by Hans Kung, arguably the world’s leading Catholic theologian. Kung wrote, “The only way to solve the problem of contraception is to solve the problem of infallibility.” In this single sentence, Prof. Kung identified the core of the world population problem.

When Vatican Council I, more than a century earlier, adopted the principle of Papal infallibility in 1870, the intellectual leadership of the Church objected on the grounds that in due time the Church would find itself inescapably down a blind alley, followed by inevitable self-destruction of the Papacy.

In 1966, the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control submitted its report to Pope Paul VI recommending that the Church change its position on birth control. A minority report, recommending no change, became the basis for Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical banning birth control. It was coauthored by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II, and reads:

“If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti connubii was promulgated), in 1951 (Pius XII’s address to the midwives), and in 1958 (the address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died). It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved.”

In a May 15, 1980 letter to the German Bishops’ Conference, John Paul II said, “I am convinced that the doctrine of infallibility is in a certain sense the key to the certainty with which the faith is confessed and proclaimed. as well as to the life and conduct of the faithful. For once this essential foundation is shaken or destroyed, the most basic truths of our faith likewise begin to break down.”

In these two quotes, Pope John Paul II acknowledges the obvious. Birth control became the “blind alley” the intellectual leadership so feared in 1870. (A chapter of my new book has been devoted to this topic.)

Thus, in effect the Church cannot change its position on birth control without the real prospect of destroying itself. As a result, the institution has defined morality in such a way as to attempt to prevent self-destruction–by saying that birth control is morally wrong. Demands that the teachings of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception and abortion, be followed are made to insure survival of the principle of infallibility and of the institution itself. In my view, it is undeniable that institutional survival motivated the Holy See to behave as it did at the Cairo conference.

Foundation member Stephen Mumford has authored a new book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy available from the Center for Research on Population and Security, P.O. Box 13067, Research Triangle Park for $18.95 plus $4 for handling.

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