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To promote women's equal dignity

August 25, 1995

Holy See's position

at Beijing Conference on Women is outlined for members of the press corps


On Friday, 25 August, Dr Joaquín Navarro-Valls, director of the Holy See's Press Office, gave his second briefing on the Holy See's position regarding the Fourth World Conference on Women. Here is the English text of his statement released by the Press Office.

With the Fourth World Conference on Women imminent, the Holy See finds it opportune to make known the position of its Beijing Delegation. In defining its position the Holy See has been attentive to and has taken into account the desires, concerns and just demands of millions of women on the five continents. It has listened also to the voice of millions of non-Catholic women, from all cultural and religious traditions, who participate in educational programmes, and those of human and spiritual promotion in place in more than 300,000 Catholic institutions worldwide. At least half the beneficiaries of these institutions are non-Catholics and a significant number of them come from developing countries.

The Holy See has supported the Fourth World Conference on Women from the time of its convocation and its Delegations have participated in all phases of the preparatory process: regional conferences, preparatory committees, etc., making its contribution.

The Holy See wants the Conference in Beijing to be an occasion for reflection, and above all, to take active decisions that promote the dignity, the rights and the holistic development of women. To reach these objectives it is necessary that the Conference boldly assume a perspective decidedly in favour of women.

The Delegation of the Holy See wants to commit its efforts towards the liberation of women from the heavy load of certain cultural and socially negative conditioning, which, in many places, have also kept women from being conscious of their own dignity. The Holy See hopes that new constraints will be avoided in Beijing, those that impose on women a social minority philosophy which misunderstands the concrete daily needs and deepest hopes of the majority of women within developed countries, as well as, and especially, in developing countries.

During the conference's preparatory process a tension between two very distant positions emerged.

The first seems to reduce the human person - woman in this case - to social functions that must be overcome; it is paradoxical that the struggle for equality with man ends up in denying women the most intimate truth of their existence. Three main characteristics of this feminism are: a negative attitude towards the family, acritical support for abortion and an angry anthropology in which feminine problems are linked solely to sexuality and contraception.

The second considers women and men equal co-partners - and not enemies - in the immense task of bettering humanity. It affirms the equal dignity of woman, her right to responsible motherhood, and denounces the totalitarian ideology that, in the name of governments and totalitarian anthropologies, tries to pit the State against the family, women against men or children, rich against poor.

Inevitably this confrontation of positions influences also the North-South tension, which is very evident in this preparatory phase.

The draft of the Platform of Action is a basis of discussion for the Conference on women. It is alarming that almost 50 per cent of the text has not obtained a consensus and goes to Beijing in brackets. If this document is to mirror women's hopes at this time in history, its content must be all the more open to real facts which up until now have not sufficiently been taken into account. The Holy See hopes that its contribution and that of the other delegations present at Beijing will help eliminate from the current Platform certain exaggerated tendencies present in a few pages, which are not respectful of the cultural pluralism among women in today's world.

Some basic themes of the Platform for Action are part of an accepted language, recognized in preceding UN documents, mainly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), in the Declaration of Vienna on Human Rights (1993), in the International Conference on Population and Development (1994) and in the World Summit on Social Development (1995). It is disturbing that at the Beijing Conference some formulations contained in these documents today appear in brackets.

The Holy See will insist that the content of these documents already approved by the international community be respected. The Operative Platform that will be approved at Beijing must not ignore continuity with preceding international documents.

Other basic points of the Holy See's position at Beijing:

1. The dignity of women

Men and women enjoy the same identical dignity. The dignity of women is prerequisite to any recognition on the part of the State. Without a clear understanding of the meaning of human dignity, discrimination will never be avoided. Women are - and have been historically - the first to suffer. In reality discriminatory practices against women, in all their forms, are none other than the expression of a lack of recognition of the equal dignity of women. With compulsory contraception, sterilization, genital mutilation, discrimination in work, etc. one can see the lack of respect regarding women's dignity, especially when they are poor and not sufficiently educated.

1.1 Women and men are the illustration of a biological, individual, personal and spiritual complementarity. Femininity is the unique and specific characteristic of woman, as masculinity is of man. This difference - by reason of equal dignity - must find in practice juridical recognition in various legal systems. A woman cannot accept the parameters imposed by and through men within her family as well as her professional life. A woman has the right to choose between: having a profession, being simultaneously a mother and carrying on a profession, and being a mother and dedicating all her activity to the home.

1.2 In the document the word "dignity" (of women) is found inexplicably in brackets (par. 43, 225, etc.). The Holy See has always given importance to the dignity of women - of men and women - because from this reality it follows that all human beings deserve the same respect. Furthermore, the first Principle of the Rio Declaration (1992) affirms that "human beings are the centre of concern for a sustainable development".

2. Equal dignity for all women

The dignity of a poor woman is identical to that of a rich woman. Women represent the majority of the world's poor, the less educated and those who count for less in political terms. Only the particular attention of the Conference to the inalienable dignity of each woman can avoid discrimination based on "pragmatic" reasoning.

3. Human rights of women

Human rights by their nature are universal. The rights of women are an integral part of human rights, which are valid for all human beings in all times and all places. The universality of human rights has been recognized by many international legal documents, in particular, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1993).

Human rights are not "concessions" of the State, for the simple fact that they are based on the very structure of the human being, and they are antecedent to every social and political organization. Women and men share the same human nature. All legal documents on human rights recognize that human nature is unique.

4. Women and family

Statistics show on average that nine women out of 10 get married and five out of six have children. This fact cannot be ignored by the Beijing document.

The family is the fundamental unit of society. For this reason there needs to be special protection of it by society. This fact has been recognized and emphasized in international documents on human rights up to the present time.

Nevertheless, in their discussion of the subject a few States did not include the family among the above-cited objectives of social policy. This attitude seems to ignore the accords on the topic recognized by the final documents of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and in the World Summit on Social Development of Copenhagen (1995). It is to be hoped that on such an important topic as the family the accords agreed upon less than a year ago and the commitments made in conferences and international summits will find their full application in the Beijing document.

4.1. There is no substitute for the family. The roles of father and mother are different but of equal importance: both are complementary. A woman has a right to protection by society in her role as mother. Society must recognize the social value of woman's work in the family.

5. A woman's work within the family today is the object of serious discrimination especially in Western countries, where one might add, it is becoming almost impossible for a woman to dedicate herself solely to the home. If society organizes itself solely on the criteria of productivity, motherhood will certainly be the victim. The "social value" of work in the home has been publicly proclaimed, but it has not yet received adequate legal recognition, at least with regard to economic remuneration. This paradox is found in the Platform of Action: every time a study and consequent decision to give economic recognition for domestic work was suggested, the text was put in brackets (see par. 158, 209 f, y, g, etc.).

6. In the Platform of Action there is an alarming tendency to speak of the family solely in negative terms. Instead of underscoring the duties of the State regarding the family and of discussing more adequate family policies, there is an almost conscious non-advertence of the crucial, social importance of the family. In contrast to the document approved at Cairo (1994), which has one entire chapter on the family, and that of Copenhagen (1995), which has a section on the family, it is alarming that the preparatory document for Beijing does not include any chapter on the family. This is one aspect which broadly demonstrates the ideological weight that the Platform of Action carries. The absence in the document of practically any consideration of the role and work of women in the family arouses suspicion. The paragraph is still in brackets.

7. The feminization of poverty

It is necessary that the Conference propose measures to avoid the phenomenon of the "feminization of poverty". The fundamental causes are found above all in the instability of the family, in the lack of protection of motherhood and the abandonment of the home by fathers. It is also a result of an irresponsible non-advertence on the part of the rich countries, of their duties towards women in the developing countries, including those that find themselves forced to emigrate. It cannot be resolved, as some think, by mechanically applying enforced plans of population control.

8. Physical and psychic violence

Physical violence against women includes not only rape, war, genital mutilation, forced prostitution and arranged marriages, but also forced contraception, sterilization and abortion. Besides this, when violence exists in a family, most often the victims are women. It is widely documented that in many countries in the campaign for demographic control often there is no respect for the "informed consent", nor is a woman fully informed about the effects of medicines or medical techniques. Equally, many cases of forced sterilization as part of oppressive programmes of population control have been recorded. These practices - which are barely mentioned or completely absent in the Platform of Action - certainly violate all the fundamental human rights of women and are totally unacceptable.

9. Women and peace

The role of women as teachers of peace in society, in family, political, national and international life can never be emphasized enough. Their contribution to the family, teaching children respect, love, understanding, and caring for one another is greater and more important than any scholastic programme. The family is the first school - and in many underdeveloped countries, the only one.

Practical experience as much as academic social psychology teaches that the mother has a fundamental ability in maintaining peace and in resolving conflict, and that she plays the principal role as mediator within the family. She can keep members of the family united through her continued effort of mediation. And even this obvious fact appears in brackets in par. 141.

10. Women and education

Access to education, on all levels, is a focal point in the liberation and promotion of women. Education is the prerequisite for access to employment, to personal autonomy and to complete participation in economic, social and political life. In a respectable social and cultural context, women do not need to have children simply to guarantee their own future. Education is the road that averts poverty. The Holy See cannot fail to cite in this area its own experience down the centuries, and it is still active today in more than 300,000 social welfare institutions worldwide, many of these specializing in the education of women of all cultures and religions.

11. Women and health

The ideological imbalance present in the Platform for Action is more evident in the chapter devoted to health. The document gives preference to sexually transmitted diseases or those which refer to reproduction.

These represent only one part of women's health problems. Other diseases, such as tropical ones - which each year become more contagious and cause more deaths than sexually transmitted diseases - are not given serious consideration.

The greatest limitation in the measures proposed is that women's health is considered in a reproductive context only. When "seen through the lens of fertility control, the notion of health is distorted beyond all recognition" (The Lancet, 22 July 1995, p. 195). The general picture that emerges in this chapter is not only non-comprehensive but is not even representative of the interests and concrete needs of women, especially of women in developing countries.

While in one of its first paragraphs the document refers to the increase predicted in sexually transmitted diseases, in the chapters on health, promiscuity is not discouraged in any way, but it is even presumed. To discourage promiscuity could be an ethical topic, but certainly it is also a medical topic and an important element in the orientation of social policy.

2. The unbalanced emphasis in this chapter on so-called "reproductive rights", "safe sex" and "safe abortion" runs the risk of altering the aim and the meaning of this Conference. While the official theme of the Conference is "action for equality, development and peace", it has already been presented as a conference "on the rights of women and their reproductive health". This reduction again penalizes the interests of the majority of women.

13. Abortion and human rights

The Holy See continues to insist that no human right to abortion exists because it contradicts the human right to life. The human right to life is the basic human right: all others stem from it. Human life deserves respect in any circumstance. A life in a poor country or in a developing country must be as much respected as any human life in the wealthy West.

Abortion is not a problem uniquely concerning women; it also involves men and society. Surprisingly, this aspect is absent in the Platform of Action. In this way, a woman is condemned to isolation just at that moment of her life when she most needs solidarity. The irresponsibility of men, and often of society, is at the root of many abortions.

14. Rights, duties and responsibility of a mother and father

In all cultures, independent of political systems, parents consider it their personal responsibility to educate their children and to exercise their duties towards minors. The Declaration of Human Rights recognizes this principle establishing the right of parents to choose the type of education for their progeny. This principle has been placed in brackets in the Platform of Action.

More serious yet is the pretence of depriving parents of their responsibility regarding the choice of programmes and public services in the area of sexuality, including abortion (par. 107). At Cairo and at Copenhagen the recommendations to governments were approved, according to which services to minors and adolescents have to be offered and carried out "in accordance with the convention of the Rights of the Child and in recognition of the rights, duties and responsibility of the parents and of other persons responsible for minors". Some Western States seem to have changed their opinion on this point, now finding it difficult to affirm in the Beijing document the very commitment made only six months ago at Copenhagen. On this point one would hope one could count on the good will and good sense of the delegations going to Beijing.

15. Spiritual dimensions of a woman's life

The serious problems of our world require that society answer not only the material needs of women, but also the spiritual dimensions of their lives. Every form of extremism can have a negative impact on women, but it is indisputable that religion plays a central and positive role in the life of millions of women throughout the world, and is a part of the expectations that they have for the future. The Draft Document presses for plurality and tolerance in many sections, but the sole reference in the whole document to the spiritual and religious dimension of a woman's life is found in brackets.

* * *

The Holy See goes to Beijing with the desire and the purpose of making its own contribution so that the Fourth World Conference on Women can reach a universal "consensus" on the urgent topics of interest to women today. It has been said that the Conference would be "a very effective way to get the world together". This objective can be reached if the Conference succeeds in making everyone conscious of women's rights; and if it offers the means to protect motherhood, the family, and the needs of women in professional life; if it succeeds in eradicating violence and the feminization of poverty; and if it finds effective ways to protect women emigrants and the population migrating between the South and the North of the world.

Certainly the Conference will not succeed in uniting the world if it attempts to impose, particularly on developing countries, a Western product, a socially reductive philosophy, which does not even represent the hopes and needs of the majority of Western women.

Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

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