Speech To The Population Conference Planning Session

Author: PCJP


Msgr. Diarmuid Martin
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Given on April 4 to the opening in New York of the third session of the preparatory committee for next September's International Conference on Population and Development, which will be held in Cairo, Egypt.

The Holy See has followed with interest the entire phase of the preparation for the Cairo conference up to this moment. It was pleased to take part especially in the regional preparatory conferences, as well as in the earlier sessions of this preparatory committee and the meetings of the population commission.

The presence of the Holy See in these activities is a sign of the importance that it attaches to the themes which will be discussed here over the coming days and later on this year in Cairo. An overall view of the positions of the Holy See can be found in the message which the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, consigned to the secretary general of the conference, Mrs. Nafis Sadik, on the occasion of her recent visit to the Vatican. The text of this message is available to all delegations.

The theme of the Cairo conference, "Population and Development," as Pope John Paul noted in that message, is "of vital importance for the well-being and progress of the human family." "None of the issues to be discussed," he continued, "is simply an economic or demographic concern, but, at root, each is a matter of profound moral significance, with far-reaching implications."

It is important, in the first place, during these weeks of intense work and discussion, never to lose contact with the deepest aspects of the subjects under consideration and their significance for the human person and for society. Subjects which so intimately concern the well-being and the welfare of humanity, the transmission and the protection of human life, such fundamental institutions as marriage and the family, and responsible stewardship of the Earth's resources and its environment must be approached with caution, indeed with reverence and respect. We live in a world which is marked all too often with predominantly utilitarian values. But decisions about the human person cannot be measured only or even primarily in utilitarian terms. When we proclaim, as the principles outlined in the draft final document rightly do, drawing from the Rio Declaration, that "human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development," we already clarify the vision of development we wish to foster.

Human-centered development, person-centered development, is one which is holistic, centered on an integral understanding of the destiny and the potentialities of the person, while at the same time taking into account interpersonal and societal relationships.

The ethical and moral dimensions of the responsibilities of persons and their behavior, of their rights and duties, belong clearly within such integral reflection. Ethics is a real dimension of human existence, which cannot be measured in economic or utilitarian terms, but without which the human person and human society can never progress toward full development.

One of the principal concerns of the delegation of the Holy See regarding the draft final document is its lack of a clear ethical vision. It is not simply a question of a different ethical evaluation of one or other particular situation or circumstance. The document is marked in fact by an extremely individualistic understanding of the person and of human sexuality. It accepts, almost as an unrestricted right, that each individual, including adolescents from an early age, may be "sexually active." While the draft final document recognizes the negative consequences that some recent changes in social patterns have brought, the only response it offers is to indicate the possible means to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. No indications are offered as to how society intends to discourage behavior which the text itself describes as "high-risk" regarding the health of persons. No indications are given of ways in which young people can be led to understand that mature sexual behavior requires an appreciation of the deeper interpersonal dimensions and of the self-restraint that is necessary to show respect and love for the other.

In reflection on the rights and duties involved in the decisions of couples concerning the number of their children and the spacing of births, the expressions of the Teheran Human Rights Conference are often quoted. In the 25 years or so since that conference, the reflection on one aspect of the Teheran formulations has, however, been neglected: "Parents," the text reads, "have a basic human right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children." If anything, there has been in these years a fear of making more explicit what this notion of responsibility means.

Ethical demands and responsibility cannot be determined by a superficial analysis of the behavior patterns of the day, especially when some of these patterns are commonly judged to be immature or even irresponsible. Society cannot abdicate its responsibility of indicating the fundamentals of what responsible behavior is and of effectively challenging, especially young people, to reach personal and human maturity, which inevitably involves more respectful behavior toward others.

A reading of the draft final document can leave one with the impression that it is marked by that reticence toward a coherent moral vision which is characteristic of certain industrialized countries. It does not seem to take into consideration or fully grasp the extent to which cultural, ethical, spiritual and religious values are deeply rooted in the traditions of other people, especially developing countries.

The lack of a coherent ethical vision underpinning a document which deals with fundamental questions concerning the future of humanity is extremely worrying. In such an ethical vacuum, the document attempts to establish principles, at times of an ideological, at times of an operational nature. A society, an international community, which is based on principles which do not have a clear vision or philosophical underpinning is doomed to disintegration.

In an analogous way, it would be extremely dangerous for the international community to proclaim new "fundamental human rights" which, rather than being based on what is essential to the dignity of the human person and the common good of humanity, are based on individual preference or on a particular ideology. The international community has justifiably been very sparing in creating "new rights" or in amplifying the application of the well—recognized human rights. To dilute the content of human rights is to weaken gravely their impact and the ability of the international community to demand their absolute respect.

The delegation of the Holy See would therefore like to see more clearly defined the precise content, extent and limits of the proposed concept of "reproductive rights." My delegation appreciates the value and necessity of reproductive health as part of a person's overall well-being, both men and women. This includes a commitment to the fostering of all those physical, psychological, economic, social and cultural factors which would ensure that conception, pregnancy, birth and child nurturing are guaranteed, in optimal conditions, for women. Such concerns would embrace, naturally, also those educational measures, including moral education which will lead young people to mature sexual behavior and to respectful family relations. It involves efforts to eliminate sexual violence, to remove other abuses and mutilations, especially of women. It involves the appropriate treatment and prevention of infertility. The Holy See will support such a notion of "reproductive health": one that is open to the creation of an environment where women and men can make free and responsible decisions that will enable them to procreate without endangering their own health or that of the children they bear.

However, the Holy See cannot support any concept of "reproductive rights" which would include abortion as an appropriate means of family planning or the notion of an internationally recognized fundamental right to abortion.

The Holy See also finds unacceptable the document's continual implication that family planning and contraception are synonymous terms. This is underlined by the total absence of any reference in the draft final document to natural family planning. The Holy See supports the use of the natural methods for the regulation of fertility, not only for ethical reasons, but because these inexpensive methods respect the health of women and men by avoiding the possibility of dangerous side-effects, and enlist the full involvement and commitment of the man.

In the course of the discussions, the delegation of the Holy See is most willing to work together with other delegations in these meetings in presenting and elaborating formulations of the draft final document.

The same will apply, Mr. Chairman, to other aspects of the document under consideration and which I will not develop at this moment. Most of these areas have been indicated in the message which Pope John Paul has addressed to the secretary-general, such as the relationship of population policy to 28 development policy in general, the centrality of the family and its right to support from society and the state, the dignity of women and the need for men to assume greater responsibility for family life.

The aim of the interventions of my delegation will be above all to deepen the awareness which our final document will show for the fundamental ethical truths which are involved in our reflection. We stand before serious questions about the future of humanity which challenge us to provide convincing answers. But we must also approach such questions, as I have said, with a certain reverence and respect, aware of the modesty and limitations of the contribution that even such an important conference can bring.