As bad as the Inquisition: The Vatican perpetrates a grave wrong
The Guardian (UK), June 30, 1999

A UN special ministerial session, Cairo+5, opens today to review progress since the 1994 UN conference on population and development. Originally, the main purpose was to mobilise political will and chivy financial resources out of recalcitrant donors to meet the Cairo targets such as reducing maternal mortality and improving the reproductive health of young people. But all that is in danger of being scuppered.

Just as the Holy See manoeuvred behind the scenes in 1994, so it has been assiduously campaigning in recent months. Preparatory meetings have been stymied by the Holy See acting in concert with Sudan, Libya, some Latin American allies and an increasingly sycophantic Slovakia. What has infuriated Clare Short, the secretary for international development, is that the Vatican saw the review as an opportunity to renegotiate the hard-won compromises of the Cairo conference, thus distracting energy from the real challenge of translating rhetoric into action.

It is the central paradox of the papacy of John Paul II that while he has championed the cause of the developing world on frequent occasions, lambasting the arms trade and global economic inequality, as soon as the agenda switches to anything to do with sex, a rigid doctrinaire fundamentalism sets in. A reminder of what is at stake here: the health and well-being of a huge generation. One in five of the world's population is under 24, and every day 7,000 of them are infected with HIV; around half of all sexual assault is against adolescents aged 15 and younger; the biggest cause of death for girls aged 15-19 are complications around pregnancy and childbirth.

The refusal to acknowledge female reproductive rights and to address the issue of population growth - which is set to pass the six billion mark this year - is on a par with the Inquisition as one of the gravest wrongs perpetuated by the Catholic church in its long history.