SEPTEMBER 19, 1994



The Cairo population conference will have to go down as one of the oddest adventures of the Clinton administration. Like many a Clinton saga, it follows the basic Lani Guinier story line: the staking out of a highly controversial position, an attempt to discredit opposition, followed by a quiet collapse and an explanation that ``we never meant to do anything like that at all.''

First the staking out. In March, a State Department ``action cable'' instructed all U.S. embassies to tell their host governments: ``The United States believes that access to safe, legal and voluntary abortion is a fundamental right of all women. . . .''

The use of the term ``fundamental right,'' as part of an aggressive U.S. lobbying effort, was a breathtaking leap. Since abortion is a fundamental right nowhere outside of North America, this amounted to an attempt to impose the ideological structure of ROE V. WADE on the rest of the world.

This was not an offer to fund abortion for poor nations that want it. It was an attempt to override laws and customs by establishing some sort of internationally recognized right that might be financially enforced in the future by the U.N. or international aid organizations.

Tim Wirth, under secretary of state and point man in the U.S. abortion lobbying effort, said that ``a government which is violating basic human rights should not hide behind the defense of sovereignty.'' He meant that once international organizations accept abortion as a fundamental right, it can be cited to trump the laws, constitutions and sovereignty of any nation.


Most Third World nations are heavily dependent on U.S. foreign aid, so the implication left hanging in the air is that resistance to the worldwide version of ROE V. WADE might prove costly. The March cable made it clear that the United States intended to play hardball, stating that ``senior-level diplomatic interventions'' with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund would ``advance U.S. population policy interests.''

A spokesman for the U.S. Catholic bishops quoted a Guatemalan government minister as saying: ``If I don't go along on abortion, there goes all my aid money.'' Miguel Prado, an adviser to Peru's delegation, told me much the same thing, complaining about the ``fanatical agenda'' and ``big engine'' of the U.S. abortion lobby at the conference.

Does the United States have the right to throw its weight around like this in the Third World? It depends on your taste for cultural imperialism and American arrogance.

Pushing other nations this hard was an extraordinary decision for Clinton to make. He picked a hard-line, hard-edged delegation, with a very aggressive game plan based on domestic ``pro-choice'' lobbying: Moral or cultural qualms were dismissed. Abortion was positioned as a woman's issue or a health issue. Abortion was a legitimate tool of population control, a fundamental right. Laws protecting the fetus were ``coercive.'' Abortion should be covered by national health plans.

Many of the controversial American positions in the draft program of action were set forth in a fog of protective euphemisms. ``Reproductive health services,'' it turned out, included abortion, and the persistent linking of the words ``family planning'' and ``reproductive health services'' was a devious way of expressing an idea that the American delegates didn't dare say out loud: that abortion should be a legitimate family planning method.

Because the Vatican challenged these linguistic sinkholes and rallied 20 to 30 nations to resist, the Clinton administration backed down. (Surprise!) By week's end, abortion was gone from the document's family planning section, Al Gore was acknowledging national sovereignty and disavowing both the ``fundamental right'' language and abortion as population control.

The press was so preoccupied writing articles about the pope as a fuddy-duddy obstructionist that it barely noticed that the Vatican had successfully picked apart the American word games and had the Clintonites in full retreat. The Vatican has its own problems here, notably its refusal to accept birth control; but in this case it exerted clear moral leadership, coming to the aid of poor nations being bullied by one particular rich one.

This whole episode raises serious questions about the Clinton administration. This wasn't an attempt by a ``pro-choice'' team to consult and persuade, or to offer clinics to nations that want them. It was a highhanded attempt to ``push the envelope,'' as one delegate put it, by going way beyond what other nations want, and what the American people are willing to have done in their name.

The administration may be in favor of abortion rights, but it might have shown a decent respect for the obvious moral uneasiness Americans feel on this issue. This is an administration representing 43 percent of the voters in a nation where half the people consider abortion immoral and a fairly large majority thinks the government shouldn't be involved in abortion at all. There is no mandate here for turning America into the world's largest and pushiest abortion lobbyist. This is an administration that needs to get its constituent pressure groups under control.