President Clinton has met Pope John Paul II twice, and one topic -- abortion -- has dominated both meetings. Last summer in Denver, the pope publicly rebuked the president for his support of abortion rights. Yesterday at the Vatican, John Paul further pressed his adamant opposition to contraception and abortion -- and, in particular, to a document being prepared for a United Nations conference on population and development to be held in September in Cairo.
After yesterday's encounter, the president told American seminarians that he and John Paul discussed "how we could come together on a policy that would promote responsible growth in the world's population and still reaffirm our common commitment to the central role of the family in every society." That seems to have put the most optimistic spin possible on the conversation. A Vatican official told reporters, "If he says there was a narrowing of differences, it's clear it can be only in one direction."
Obviously, President Clinton would be foolish to hope for much common ground as long as the Vatican's concerns about human reproduction center so strongly on opposition to contraception and abortion. The president would be equally wrong to capitulate to the pope's desire to shape U.N. policies in ways that would hamper efforts to give people around the world more control over the size of their families. Certainly moral and religious concerns should be central to these decisions, and the Catholic Church has every right to press its case. But governments everywhere are now recognizing the link between slower population growth and any reasonable hope of providing their citizens with adequate food and shelter.
The central issue in this debate is not abortion, but rather population -- specifically, whether world population will be stabilized before it outstrips the resources necessary to sustain human communities. As it is, too many millions of people already subsist in abject poverty. Those conditions give rise to the reason abortion cannot be overlooked in population debates. International family planning programs rarely get tangled up in questions of legalizing or subsidizing abortion. Rather, abortion forces itself into the debate in the ugliest of ways -- the 100,000 mothers each year who are so desperate not to have another child that they resort to unsafe, illegal abortions and end up paying for that desperation with their lives. That's the messy reality.
President Clinton has long said abortion should be safe, legal and rare. But without adequate contraception, that will never happen. Unfortunately for a world that desperately needs guidance on these issues, the Vatican's opposition to both abortion and to any form of contraception it regards as artificial severely constricts its ability to participate in any realistic policy debate.