WASHINGTON - Health officials from all but one of the 40 countries of the Americas Friday reaffirmed their commitment to an international program on family planning and reproductive health program at a hemispheric population conference in Chile, leaving the United States isolated as the only nation to refuse to join the final communique.
By acclamation, the more than 300 participants at the Santiago Health Conference added language over U.S. objections that reaffirmed and expanded the so-called "Cairo Consensus," the program of action endorsed by 179 countries, including the U.S., at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The Consensus asserts that promoting women's reproductive and sexual rights and services is central to reducing poverty and promoting economic development.
"This is a very clear document, a consensus that reaffirms Cairo in every dimension," said Marisela Padron, Latin America director for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), one of the Santiago conference's sponsors. "The procedures were impeccable," she added at the conclusion of the four-day meeting.
In its statement the U.S. delegation, headed by Lucy Tamlyn, objected to the procedures as well as the substance of the final document. "There are numerous statements in the declaration to which we cannot subscribe," said Tamlyn. "There are also significant omissions. Therefore the United States regretfully disassociates from the declaration."
It was the third recent international gathering of population and health decision-makers to reject efforts by the Bush administration to both distance itself from the Cairo Consensus and try to persuade other nations to recast the 1994 declaration in terms that are more compatible with its conservative and anti-abortion ideology.
At similar regional conferences in Europe and Asia, the administration also tried but failed to remove references to "reproductive health services," which it has defined as supporting abortion, and to insert language asserting parental rights to make all decisions regarding adolescents' sexual and reproductive health.
"It was important that the United States be able to express its differences in a transparent manner," said Ana Cristina Gonzalez, head of the Colombia delegation, "but these sentiments are not shared in the region, as became clear."
The role played by the administration's delegation in Santiago provoked more than a dozen U.S. lawmakers to send a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday warning that Washington is sacrificing its traditional leadership role in global population issues. While Washington has continued as the world's largest funder of family planning services, the administration's recent refusal to fund UNFPA, and now to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Cairo Consensus, is eroding that status.
"By steadfastly refusing to reaffirm the Cairo Programme of Action--combined with a preoccupation to redefine previously negotiated terms--the U.S. delegation, at various international meetings, has hindered efforts to achieve universal access to reproductive health services to all who need them by 2015," the lawmakers--led by Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley--wrote in a reference to a goal set by the UN-sponsored Millennium Summit in 2000.
"The delegation has also interfered with the ability of countries to even discuss other reproductive health issues of vital importance to their citizens and the future of their nations," the lawmakers wrote, urging Powell to "reorient and reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy and advance policies and programs grounded in sound public health practices..."
Three non-governmental groups also strongly criticized the administration's position at Santiago. The Center for Gender Equity, Feminist Majority, and Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) issued a joint statement critiquing the administration's decision--announced earlier this week--that it will not reaffirm the U.S. commitment to 1995 Beijing Platform of Action, a program adopted by a UN conference to promote the advancement of women throughout the world, would also isolate Washington from much of the rest of the world.
"The Bush administration has been marking International Women's Day with official pledges to support women's human rights worldwide, and especially in Afghanistan and Iraq," the three groups said. "However, the administration's actions to date have fallen far short of its promises to the world's women."
Washington's isolation at the Santiago conference was particularly notable. Latin America has the world's largest Catholic population, and the Vatican has in the past worked with governments there to oppose the expansion of women's reproductive rights, particularly the right to obtain contraception and abortion services.
Citing a recent survey of Catholic opinion in Latin America, Carmen Barroso, regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), said there has been a "silent revolution of the secularization of the Catholic mind" in the region. Some 96 percent of Catholics in Mexico, for example, said they believe public health services should include free contraception.
"Sexual and reproductive health is a major concern for young people," who make up a growing proportion of the Latin America population, she added.
Edwin St. Catherine, head of the delegation from St. Lucia and one of the conference's presiding officers, said U.S. objections to the final document were "substantial" but that ideological concerns are "infiltrating policy where they probably shouldn't."
Terri Bartlett of Population Action International (PAI), a Washington-based research and lobby group, hailed the result. "It is important to remember," she said, "that these agreements allow advocates to hold their governments accountable in delivering life-saving services and promoting health care."
The U.S. position in that respect was unfortunate. "What is sad for us is that in 1994, the U.S. was a leader in building the Cairo Consensus, and now, ten years later, instead of a leader, the U.S. has taken almost every opportunity to turn back the clock on the goals of Cairo by refusing to reaffirm its commitment, by attempting to renegotiate globally-agreed terms and by using its influence to promote a U.S.-based, anti-Cairo, anti-reproductive health agenda," Bartlett continued.
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