The Vatican has also used its status within the United Nations to promote its Humanae Vitae-centered vision of human sexuality and block global efforts to introduce family planning programs, increase human and reproductive rights for women and fight AIDS.
The Vatican has forged strategic ties at the UN with conservative Christian and Catholic organizations and hardline Islamic governments like those in Iran and Libya to advance a shared vision of “natural family” as one in which contraceptive practice is nonexistent or limited.
The Holy See, which is the government of the Roman Catholic church, is a Non-member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations. This designation gives it some of the privileges of a state, such as being able to speak and vote at UN conferences. Because UN conferences seek to make decisions by consensus, the ability to disagree with the majority consensus has significant power. The Vatican has become adept at using its status at UN meetings to create coalitions of nations hostile to contraception and to influence the outcomes of international consensus documents designed to be templates for action on global family planning, development issues and HIV and AIDS prevention.
The Vatican has forged strategic ties at the UN with conservative Christian and Catholic organizations and hardline Islamic governments like those in Iran and Libya to advance a shared vision of “natural family” as one in which contraceptive practice is nonexistent or limited. At the historic 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the Vatican teamed up with small Catholic countries—including Honduras, Ecuador, Malta and Guatemala— as well as Iran and Libya to undermine the international consensus on women’s right to reproductive health, including the right to contraception. Prior to the conference, the Vatican decried what it called “contraceptive imperialism” and suggested that family planning programs, “frequently made in the name of the health and well-being of women,” were exploiting poor women and forcing them to use modern methods of contraception. The Vatican attempted to undercut support for family planning programs by charging that hormonal methods were abortifacients and that poor women were being sterilized without their consent.[i] During the meeting, the Vatican held up consensus by instituting endless conversations about the meaning of phrases such as “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” and disputing language designed to extend family planning services to adolescents, all in the name of halting the spread of modern contraceptives to developing nations.
The hierarchy often argues that contraception is inherently harmful to society by undermining marriage and the family, eroding the “special” status of women as mothers and contributing to promiscuity. In 1993 the Vatican tried to link contraception to a host of modern ills, claiming that “contraception has contributed to the rise in divorces and the number of abandoned spouses and children who are left with just one parent.”[ii] At the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, Vatican officials took issue with the concepts of “women’s right to control their sexuality” and “women’s right to control…their fertility,” asserting that these rights should be understood to refer only to “the responsible use of sexuality within marriage.” They also condemned “family planning” as “morally unacceptable.”[iii]
At the five-year review of the Cairo Conference in 1999 and later at the five-year review of the Beijing Women’s Conference, the Vatican recruited antichoice and anticontraception organizations such as the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute to apply for accreditation to UN conferences. These groups further amplified the Vatican’s obstructionist tactics, objecting to terms such as “sex education” to slow proceedings and illegally lobbying delegates in an attempt to disrupt the conference.
At the UN Special Session on Children in 2002 designed to reach accord on measures to protect children from disease and poverty, the Vatican teamed up with the George W. Bush administration and delegations from Syria, Libya and Pakistan to challenge the inclusion of a reference to reproductive health services for young adults and to push “abstinence-only” approaches to sex education and AIDS prevention. They succeeded in removing the reference to reproductive health “services,” leaving a document that endorsed young adults’ access to reproductive healthcare but not to specific methods or programs to prevent AIDS or unwanted pregnancy.[iv]
Despite these obstructions, Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), believes the Vatican has primarily failed to block international consensus on the need to provide women access to family planning services. “In the end, the Holy See wasn’t that effective at the UN and is no longer a significant force. The Vatican isn’t a major actor anymore because they lost most of their allies, such as many of the Latin American countries that came on board with family planning initiatives.”
It also has little credibility at the UN on HIV&AIDS prevention, she notes. “Especially on HIV&AIDS, they’ve made themselves irrelevant because the data and science are not on their side. And their credibility was irrevocably damaged by bishops like Kevin Dowling who said that condoms save lives.”
By the start of the 2014 UN Commission on the Status of Women, when the Vatican was expected to issue its usual slew of demands about striking references to family planning and sexuality education and adding references to the importance of the “traditional” family, many observers noted that its influence had waned. As many Latin American delegations have become more progressive on issues of sexuality and reproductive health, the Vatican has been increasingly marooned in defending Humanae Vitae.[v] In 2015, when the UN released its Sustainable Development Goals 2030, the Holy See expressed strong support despite saying it had “firm reservations” about targets promoting access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs.[vi]
[i] Pontifical Council on the Family, “Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends,” Pontifical Council on the Family, May 13, 1994.
[ii] Ari Goldman, “Religion Notes,” New York Times, December 18, 1993.
[iii] “Holy See’s Final Statement at Women’s Conference in Beijing,” September 15, 1995. http://www.its.caltech.edu/~nmcenter/women-cp/beijing3.html
[iv] Sarah Venis, “UN Conference on Children Bows to US Pressure,” The Lancet, May 18, 2002.
[v] Liz Ford, “The Vatican breaks its silence at UN gender equality conference,” The Guardian, March 20, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/mar/20/vatican-un-gender-equality-conference-csw-women.
[vi] Matt Hadro, “Holy See Expresses Cautious Support for UN Development Goals,” Catholic News Agency, September 4, 2015, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/holy-see-expresses-cautious-support-for-un-development-goals-42530.