From ........... National Catholic Reporter

October 6, 1995

page 11

Peru's family planning fight forgets the poor

Peru's Catholic church is locked in a war with President Alberto Fujimori's government over family planning - a war in which the only losers are the poor whom both sides claim to defend.

The country's [Roman] Catholic hierarchy, led by Lima Cardinal Augusto Vargas Alzamora, has been on the defensive since July 28, when Fujimori announced an ambitious family planning program as part of his government's strategy to reduce poverty.

The government admits that nearly half of Peru's 23 million people live in conditions of extreme poverty, with chronic malnutrition affecting nearly 73 percent of children in poor regions and a birthrate of more than six children per woman in rural areas - double the Latin American average.

The debate escalated when Congress approved the National Population Policy Law by a 70-23 vote Sept. 8.

Rather than focusing on whether family planning contributes to a reduction of poverty, many bishops launched what they called "crusades" to defeat Fujimori's "satanic" law.

Ayacucho Archbishop Juan Cipriani, for example, said that if the government hands out condoms it "will turn the entire country into a whorehouse."

Fujimori added more fuel to the fire at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, when he reportedly called on Latin American countries to form a bloc against the Vatican's opposition to artificial birth control.

Fujimori tried to distance himself from the declarations, but, back in Lima, Alzamora said the president was "calling on countries to unite against God."

Like other Catholic hierarchies in Latin America, Peru's bishops have vehemently opposed artificial birth control Ñ even for HIV/AIDS prevention.

In 1992, the Peruvian bishops were instrumental in blocking a government promotion of condom use to fight HIV/AIDS.

Despite this opposition, most Peruvians, 90 percent of whom claim the [Roman] Catholic faith, agree with family planning. A recent poll found that 93 percent of Peruvians support Fujimori's family planning program.

The [Roman Catholic] church's hard-line stance has done little to curb the annual tally of 270,000 clandestine abortions, procedures that result in the deaths of thousands of women each year. Basing their figures on women admitted to emergency medical facilities after backroom abortions, officials from the Ministry of Health claim most abortions are performed on poor women who say they opt for the procedure because they cannot afford to have another child.

These poor women have been lost in the family planning debate. For two months, debate has focused on whether or not vasectomies are "mutilations," and it has neglected discussion of the factors that impoverish the majority of the people of Peru.

No mention has been made of strategies to reduce the widening gap between rich and poor, reduce the country's 80 percent jobless rate, or stimulate development in the rural highlands, despite studies worldwide linking improvement in women's living status to a decline in birthrates.

A Lima taxi driver, Juan Alejandro, put it succinctly: