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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

Plenary Address of
Professor Daniel C. Maguire
at the United Nations International Conference on Population & Development

Cairo, Egypt
September 8, 1994

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Madame President, Distinguished Representatives to the International Conference on Population and Development.

First, a word of introduction. I am a Catholic theologian, trained at a Roman university accredited by the Vatican. In me you will hear the voice of those Catholics whose views have not been presented by the Vatican at this Conference.

Madame President, just as history is more apt to record wars than the achievements of peace, so news reports on this Conference have neglected its stunning positive results. For the first time in history, the nations of the world have sat down, with women as well represented as men, with the rich and the poor at the same table, and with military power playing no role at all in this hall, and addressed their moral obligations to all of humankind and to this generous host of an earth.

The great effort that led up to this moment has not been sterile. A remarkably broad consensus has been reached on at least six points: (1) Population problems will not be solved until women are educated and empowered. (2) Parents must have hope that their children will live. (3) Development must be geared to the elimination of poverty and not left to vacuous and self-serving "trickle down" economics. (4) The richer nations must civilize their rapacious consumption patterns. (5) We must control our power to destroy the earth which for the first time is greater than the earth's power to heal itself. (6) Contraception and safe abortion should be available to those who need them. With all the dissension on this last point, a vote would reveal a strong majority on this also.

Underlying all of these six points is the capital insight of this Conference that hope is the best contraceptive and there will be no hope if those six points fail.

Although the draft does not even mention religion, the first five points are deeply indebted to the justice theories that define holiness for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and are highly compatible with other major world religions. At its roots, the Program of Action is thoroughly religious.

Sadly, due to the Vatican's idiosyncratic fixation on the sixth point---contraception and abortion---the moral triumph of the document has been overshadowed, and religions have once again been made to look like obstructive icebergs in the shipping lanes of progress. As the International Institute for Sustainable Development put it, the Vatican's "high-profile lobbying and systematic opposition" forced a "disproportionate amount of attention to these issues" and prevented development of other serious issues. By taking rigid positions on debateable questions, on which good people may respectfully disagree, the Vatican has departed from the Catholic tradition of tolerance (called Probabilism) and insulted the other world religions that disagree with them on contraception and on abortion. Those other religions believe that they too know something about God and morality.

At an NGO discussion yesterday The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics presented views by Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic experts. All these experts disagreed with the Vatican's unhelpful position on contraception as always being evil, and most disagreed with them on abortion. No one supported the Vatican's position on unsafe abortions--i.e., that the only moral way to avoid them is abstinence---since that seems to imply that women who die from unsafe abortions deserve to do so.

Quite simply and quite sadly, I believe that the Vatican has squandered its moral authority on issues where it has no privileged expertise.

On a more hopeful note, Madame President, the Plan of Action calls for nothing less than major cultural revolutions. It calls for men to share power with women, for rich nations to build up the poor, and for developers to place nature before some of their profit. Without help from the religions of the world, those necessary moral revolutions will not take place. It has been said that people will die for a dogma who will not stir for a conclusion. No major social change--for good or for ill--ever occurs without the influence of religion.

Our Consultation is working to discover the renewable moral energy of the world's religions. We invite all world religions to dig into their rich stores and work together for the salvation of a world in terminal peril.

As a theologian trained in the Catholic Christian tradition, I congratulate this assembly on the production of the splendid Program of Action. It has been an honor to address you.

Daniel C. Maguire holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology. He teaches ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and serves as President of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.


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