Holy See gets tough on Unicef

The Vatican and Unicef are at loggerheads, largely over the latter's attitudes to birth control, writes Mary Russell

The Vatican and Unicef are at loggerheads, largely over the latter's attitudes to birth control, writes Mary Russell


UNICEF, the UN organisation devoted to the health and well-being of children the world over, but especially of those in developing countries, has an honourable record. It also has a problem: the Vatican. Just before Christmas, the Holy See issued a press release stating it was withdrawing its support for the organisation, thereby giving the lead to others to follow suit.

The statement left Unicef workers perplexed. Much of its work in the field is educational: providing training manuals and videos related to child-care; sponsoring radio slots which offer nutritional advice to poor communities in urban and rural areas; promoting strategies for the survival and development of the child. Its work in Latin America has been particularly characterised by its successful partnership with the Catholic church under the auspices, of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops' Council. When the war in El Salvador was at its height, for instance, it was the Catholic church which brokered the Days of Tranquillity during which Unicef workers were able to administer vaccines to children from both warring communities. Indeed, the anti-polio vaccination programme is one of the organisation's main thrusts - as will be seen from the message on the many Unicef greeting cards, that found their way on to mantelpieces the country over this year.


Why then, has the Holy See withdrawn its support both financial and moral - and, in so doing, made serious allegations about one of the UN's most respected agencies?

The press release, issued by the New York office of the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the UN, lists four charges against Unicef. They are that it has failed to account for funds ear-marked by donors for "morally unobjectionable child-related projects"; that it has participated in the production of a UN manual which advocates the distribution of "post-coital contraceptives" to women in refugee camps; that it has tried to alter abortion legislation in some countries; and finally that its workers have been distributing contraceptives and counsel on their use. ,

The Vatican's financial support has always been nominal and indeed its withdrawal has raised a wry laugh among some development agency workers, with Unicef's annual budget standing at billion, the loss of $2,000 will barely be noticed.

Johh Klink adviser to the Holy See's UN Mission, agrees the sum is insignificant but pots out that the reasons for its withdrawal are important. Speaking from his home in Santa Barbara, he told The Irish Times. "We've been leading up to this step for the last three or four years. Unicef's mandate is to care for children and the distribution of contraceptives and post-coital contraceptives is outside that mandate. There's also the fact that we have constantly asked for information about donors' money but over a three-year period there's been a total breakdown in getting information about accounts. It's not just the Holy See's contribution of $2,000 but the thousands of dollars contributed by individual donors. We feel those donors should be made aware of the situation."

Unicef should be concentrating on eradicating childhood diseases, says KIink, and at a time of limited donor support, should be spending its money according to the wishes of those donors. "Otherwise," he says, "it will become just another women's agency.

Marie Heuze Chief of Unicef's Communication Section, speaking to The Irish Times from Rome, says the whole thing is a misunderstanding: "There may have been break-downs in communication in the past but not any more. We have always had a good working relationship with the Catholic, church and that will continue.

She points out that Unicef is following policies adopted by the UN in 1993 and there has been no change in those policies since then. "There are many countries and many religions represented on our board and we always have to find a compromise," she says. "Our biggest donors - the US gives us $100 million a year and Sweden $93 million - have no problem with how we manage our budget." On the question of giving women contraceptive advice she says it is Unicef's policy to empower women to take control of their lives. "We hold that good maternal, health is in the interests of the child, she says.

In 1994, a colloquium was held, attended also by UNHCR, the UN body working with refugees, at which it, was agreed that humanitarian assistance could be given to women violated in refugee camps in emergency situations. "This could take the form of post-coital contraceptives," says Heuze. "But this would be offered, only if it were in accordance with religious beliefs and government policy of the country concerned.

"And don't forget, we are not talking only about women and, girls. There are plenty of cases of young boys being violated as well. This is a very big problem."

Ironically, the loss of the Vatican's nominal donation of $2,000 has been made good by another Catholic organisation, Catholics For Freedom of Choice (CFFC). "We take a very strong line on this," says its president, Frances Kissling, currently in London. "We view Unicef as an important organisation working for the good of the child and the mother - you can't isolate one from the other. However we have noticed an increasingly aggressive attitude on, the part of the Vatican towards international agencies, particularly with regard to family planning. This withdrawal of support is the latest and most outrageous attempt to influence international agencies and get them to act like they were religious ones.

This is not the first time CFFC has clashed with the Vatican. At the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995, the organisation circulated a petition claiming that the Vatican's status as a UN observer was dubious and should be investigated. "The idea of the city state, which is how the Vatican comes to hold the position of Permanent Observer, is a remnant of days past. It's not good for statecraft nor for religion that a religious organisation like the Vatican should be treated like a secular government. How, for instance, can you negotiate from a position of infallibility?"

The Beijing petition had many signatories including the prominent Benedictine activist Joan Chittister.

Ms Kissling, originally from Queen's, New York, has herself been a Catholic activist for many years, working to ensure that women, when abortion became legal in New York, had access to good health services and appropriate counselling. As a young woman, she first began to question the role of the Catholic church when she learned that her mother, divorced and remarried, had been told by her local priest that she could receive Holy Communion if she gave an undertaking never to make love to her second husband. ,Now, Kissling is employed full-time by CFFC which has a staff of 15 and is funded by, among others, the Ford Foundation.

She continues to be a loyal if critical member of the Catholic church. "I'm a practising Catholic. In fact, I practise so often I must be perfect by now," she says.

She places the Unicef issue within the broader one of Papal accountability. "The Vatican represents a group of men - unmarried men. Its attitude to women is harmful. While the Pope may tell Bosnian women, against who rape was used as an instrument of war that they should love the rapist, we have to see this problem through the secular world and from the view of the helping agencies."

CFFC sees the Holy See's withdrawal of support for Unicef as manipulative. It especially focused on Unicef's sale of greeting cards and other goods and this amounts to calling for a boycott," says Kissling. Such a boycott, if it were adopted widely, could have a damaging effect on Unicef, whose income from sales of cards and other goods is something in the region of $60 million. John KIink, however, denies the Holy See is calling for a boycott: "We are simply stating the case and, it is up to individuals and organisations to decide for themselves. Schools, for instance, often facilitate the sale of greeting cards. I'd imagine by Christmas next year it will have taken effect."