By Donella Meadows
–April 21, 1994–
Two years ago the official name of the big conference was UNCED — the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Everyone called it the Earth Summit. This year the official name of the big conference, to be held in Cairo in September, is ICPD — International Conference on Population and Development. They’re calling it the Birth Summit.
As with the Earth Summit, the real action of the Birth Summit is not in the final conference. That’s just the ceremony, where the government officials (Al Gore in our case) show up to sign the documents and everyone else shows up to make noise. It’s like the three steps and the national anthem at the end of an Olympic competition. The real event, the sweat and struggle, is in the writing of the documents. That has been going on for more than a year now and is culminating this week in New York, at what is called in UNese PrepCom3.
We don’t get to watch the blow-by-blow of PrepCom3, because the American press, which knows how to cover athletic events, has not yet caught on to the drama of international debate. Most of the reporters roaming the PrepCom halls are from other nations. Time magazine is covering the meeting only for its international editions. Why? I asked the Time reporter. Because our foreign readers hang on to every nuance of meetings like this, she said, but Americans don’t seem to care.
The Time editorial office may believe that. I don’t.
Here’s what goes on at a PrepCom, taken from a terse summary sheet called the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, which comes out every day to let delegates catch up on the many simultaneous negotiations. The date is April 19, the discussion is in Working Group II, the topic is abortion.
“Discussion of Section 8.21 (abortion) was carried out on a sentence-by-sentence basis…. In the fifth sentence, Ecuador deleted the reference to women’s well-being and added reference to the moral, cultural, and religious context of each country. Peru, supported by Malaysia, Bolivia, Mexico, and Iran suggested ‘governments should consider within their laws and policies related to abortion humane conditions oriented towards the protection of women’s health and well-being.’ The U.S., supported by Bangladesh, proposed ‘governments are urged to frame laws and policies on the basis of a commitment to women’s health and well-being.’ In the sixth sentence … Peru, supported by Uganda, Mexico, and others, suggested language to provide all women with the same options for abortion counseling and services. Honduras insisted that her government prohibits her from even talking about abortion in this forum…. In the eighth sentence … the Holy See and Indonesia called for deletion of ‘family planning.'”
Abortion is the fractious item, of course, and the Vatican is in the thick of it. The Pope sent a message to every head of state this week, gave a sermon, and issued a press release describing his “sad surprise” and “deep-felt anxiety” about the PrepCom discussions, which are centering more on the welfare of women than on the rights of fetuses. Women delegates from many nations are pressing for access to safe abortion. The official phrase for that goal has become, strangely, “safe motherhood.”
But it will be a shame, many delegates told me, if this conference comes to be seen as a fight about abortion. Much bigger issues are being raised here, and, to everyone’s surprise, worked out. People are calling it the calmest PrepCom, the sanest, the most upbeat, they have ever witnessed.
There is a new frankness and concern about dealing with sexually transmitted diseases. There is agreement, even from the Holy See, that the best way to reduce abortion is to prevent unintended conception. Virtually everyone agrees that families, nations, and the world benefit when birth rates come down. (That is a major change from the previous world population conferences in 1974 and 1984.) The prevailing wisdom is that birth rates come down when women are educated, employed, and empowered.
Another piece of accepted truth is that population pressure is a function of the consumption of the rich as well as the fertility of the poor — and the point is being made by the rich. Sweden’s representative Lars-Olof Edstrom says, “The onus falls on the industrialized countries to cut back on their energy and waste consumption, The energy consumed by one American is equal to three Frenchmen and 450 Nepalese. We should all cut back.”
Some of the harmony of this PrepCom probably can be attributed to the end of the Cold War. Some of it comes from the supportive position of the Clinton administration. For the first time in years the United States is not dragging its feet, not resisting the very existence of the U.N., the goal of international cooperation, or the points of view of other nations. The American delegation is made up largely of activists from population, development, and environmental organizations, and they are a lively and positive force.
But I believe — many people believe — that the main reason for the forward motion in this Birth Summit is that it is, for the first time ever, finally, and most appropriately on this of all topics, dominated by women.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994