During a week celebrating his canonization, many credited Pope John Paul II with defeating the campaign for an international right to abortion and founding the international pro-life movement. But his reach went further, to a critique of the UN’s approach to human development and how it can threaten international peace and justice.
“To formulate population issues in terms of individual ‘reproductive rights,’ or even in terms of ‘women’s rights’ is to change the focus which should be the proper concern of governments and international agencies,” John Paul II said in a letter to then-executive director of the UN Population Fund, Nafis Sadik, on the eve of the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994.
Echoing his predecessor John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, John Paul II underscored the need to formulate ethical development policy based upon objective truth, justice, the common good, and the complementarity of rights and responsibilities.
A proper understanding of rights affirms that each person has “dignity and worth that is unconditional and inalienable,” that human life is sacred from “conception to natural death,” and acknowledges that rights “transcend any constitutional order.” A proper understanding of development must be “directed to the true good of every person and of the whole person,” and cannot be reduced to the simple accumulation of wealth, goods, and services.
“Abortion, which destroys existing human life, is a heinous evil,” he told Sadik.
The letter was a direct attack on the draft outcome document for the conference which he accurately described as promoting an international right to abortion on demand and disregarding previous international agreement that abortion should not be promoted as a method of family planning. Both points were rectified in the final document, but in such a highly-publicized way that abortion advocates have not been able to advance their agenda beyond the Cairo document.
Sadik recently credited the Pope with giving the conference global attention, saying a “particular country with a very small population of only men was our main person that publicized the ICPD.” Far more than media savvy, the Pope’s attention on the conference represented his strategic vision about the international order, based upon recognition of national and cultural self-determination, and his diplomatic gamesmanship.
The attention he created would lead to a high profile defeat for the Clinton administration, in the form of a denial by Vice President Al Gore that abortion had ever been on the table. And it would present other national leaders, particularly in the Latin American and Muslim worlds, with having to take a difficult-to-reverse position on the issue even before the talks began.
Several Muslim countries boycotted or threatened to boycott the event or went on the record stating that it created no new rights. Latin American countries objected to the inclusion of the terms “reproductive rights,” “reproductive health,” “sexual health,” and “fertility regulation.”
The de-linking of the development document’s 20-year agenda to any new rights continues to be of consequence, undermining the conception that many activists and UN staff have of the UN’s “rights-based” approach to development. Originally conceived thirty years ago by rights activists as a way to hold governments accountable to civil society for fulfilling international obligations, the rights-based approach has been adopted by UN development agencies to varying degrees over the last two decades with some controversial outcomes.
In 2006 UNICEF urged Nicaragua’s national legislature to keep abortion legal and UNICEF’s latest annual report asserted that children as young as 10 years of age have a “right” to sexual services without their parent’s consent. Both resulted from the agency’s adopting the novel interpretations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the committee of experts tasked with monitoring their implementation.
Last March that committee told the Holy See it should revise canon law to accept abortion, implement sexual education in every Catholic school, and drop its opposition to teen sex.
None of these would have surprised John Paul II, who died in 2005. Witnessing the erosion of parental rights and responsibilities he warned Sadik in 1994 that “questions involving the transmission of life and its subsequent nurturing cannot be adequately dealt with except in relation to the good of the family: that communion of persons established by the marriage of husband and wife.”
While abortion advocates among UN staff still claim to be affected by the opposition John Paul II set in motion, they have doubled down on their version of the rights-based approach. UN Population Fund executive director Kate Gilmore recently announced that the UN Population Fund’s 20-year operational review affirms that a “human rights-centered development, whose heartbeat is sexual and reproductive health and well-being, continues to be the most authoritative account of what the world needs to do if it is indeed to be sustainable in the face of change and challenge.”