Nov 1 1994

Media Turned Population Debate Into Pope vs. Veep

From the Women's Desk

“The Cairo Conference will probably be remembered as the Great Abortion Showdown,” exclaimed a Wall Street Journal report (9/13/94) as the International Conference on Population and Development drew to a close this September. But whose fault is that? For all the “isn’t it a shame” tone of journalistic commentary, most of the mainstream media allowed that debate to dominate coverage of Cairo.

United Nations conferences are bureaucratic affairs; the anti-contraception dogma of the Pope against a most-of-the-world, pro-choice chorus provided a dramatic angle on the “Clash of Wills in Cairo”, headlined Time magazine (9/12/94); “Population Wars”, U.S. News & World Report called it (9/12/94). Illustrated in Time by head shots of Al Gore and John Paul II, the Veep vs. the Pope framework condensed complicated issues revolving around women into a show starring — surprise, surprise — men.

Having found the leads, a two-character scenario ensued. The U.S. delegation and its allies were portrayed as fighting for women’s rights, reproductive choice and economic development to slow global population growth. The Vatican, along with some Islamic allies, articulated the woman-as-instrument of God opposition.

The bipolar framework missed most of what was interesting about Cairo. It was also misleading. The Clinton administration’s program at Cairo was more feminist-friendly than the anti-abortion platform of the Reaganites at the1984 conference in Mexico City. But the official U.S. point of view, which dominated news reports, had its roots as much in security concerns as concern for women’s rights.

Speaking to ABC World News Tonight (9/6/94), Timothy Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs, told reporter Ned Potter that “you have too many people chasing too little land, too little food…. You’re inevitably going to have conflicts.” Potter went on to use Wirth’s examples of crises in Haiti and Rwanda as evidence of the link between population density and conflict.

This link went unchallenged in most media — despite the facts: The Netherlands has twice the population density of Taiwan, twice that of Rwanda. Of all the continents, Europe is the most densely populated,with almost twice the crowding of Africa and nowhere near the poverty and strife.

“The major problems facing the planet have less to do with human numbers than with human systems of resource and labor exploitation,” Betsy Hartmman, director of the Hampshire College Population and Development Program, told FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin (9/16/94). In an article in Dollars & Sense (9-10/94), Hartmman suggests that Ted Turner CNN was instrumental in forging what she calls a “population control consensus.” (Turner’s wife, Jane Fonda, is the U.N. Family Planning Association’s”goodwill ambassador.”) Refocusing public attention on population as a security problem, Hartmman told CounterSpin, “helps create, intentionally or not, a kind of fear of numbers that gets translated into fear of poor people and immigrants.”

The portrayal of the U.S. program as “pro-development” is also disingenuous. Although U.S. officials promised generous new funding for international family planning programs after Cairo, the total grant for foreign aid in 1995 is down $400 million from ’94 Washington Post, 6/19/94).

As for the U.S. commitment to women’s choices, few reporters scrutinized the position of the Clinton White House in light of the administration’s record at home, where federal funding for abortion had been bargained awayin the health care debate. CNN‘s celebratory news footage of free, local health clinics in remote rural regions of the globe must have looked odd to viewers in the U.S., where comparable health services do not exist. As for abortion, access to affordable abortions has been denied to poor women inmost states since 1977.

Some reporters did paint a broader picture. Sonia Correa and Rosalind Petchesky pointed out in Ms. magazine (9-10/94) that “Southern advocates of women’s reproductive and sexual rights have increasingly brought home to feminists in the North [that] securing such rights for women is inseparable from transforming the economic and gender inequities of societies.”

And Kim Murphy in the L.A. Times (9/8/94) gave her readers an unusual opportunity to hear from women medical experts and development activists outside of the U.S. whose perspective was distinct from both the “population control establishment” and the Vatican.

What actually happened in Cairo, according to participants, was that an approach that integrated women’s rights, development and economic equality got a high-level airing. Sadly, observers who were dependent on the U.S.mainstream media were offered little chance to listen in. As in the welfare debates, so in the discussion of population growth: Poor women are the ones society — and the media — hold accountable for the planet’s fate.