What Rights? New York Times’ Discussion of Egypt’s Population Policy IncompleteMay 7, 2013 By Schuyler Null
The New York Times had a front-page story on Egypt’s population policy last week; unfortunately it wasn’t a sterling example of how to report on this tricky issue and left out a key part of the story – the important role of family planning in ensuring human rights, especially for women.
“Egypt’s Birthrate Rises as Population Control Policies Vanish” starts with an interesting premise: Egypt’s birthrate rose to its highest level since 1991 last year and the new Morsi government is re-considering previous health priorities:
After two decades of steady declines and modest increases, the birthrate in 2012 reached about 32 for every 1,000 people – surpassing a level last seen in 1991, shortly before the government of the longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, expanded family planning programs and publicity campaigns to curtail population growth that he blamed for crippling Egypt’s development. Last year, there were 2.6 million births, bringing the population to about 84 million, according to preliminary government figures.
The new government of President Mohamed Morsi has continued financing for family planning programs. But health officials have taken a starkly different view of climbing birthrates, presenting the problem as one of economic management – not the size of the population. Population experts are increasingly alarmed by the government’s silence and its lack of focus on the issue.
But the article moves on to focus on the views of a new assistant minister of health, who frames the issue in terms of politics – mainly the evils of the Mubarak regime:
Dr. Abeer Barakat, the assistant minister of health in charge of family planning, said she was seeking to redress imbalances in the previous government’s approach to health care. Mr. Mubarak, she said, “was biased” toward family planning and ignored urgent concerns like cancer and hepatitis C.
And while she said that family planning programs would continue to be a part of health policy, she also said the government should play no role in encouraging families to limit the number of children they have. “Assigning a number is against reproductive freedoms, and against human rights,” she said.
“They are not rabbits, to stop giving birth,” she said. “Manpower is a treasure.”
Most family planning advocates agree that the issue is not about numbers, but they argue that cutting funding to programs that ensure family planning is accessible and affordable also undercuts reproductive freedom and human rights. Unfortunately, the reporter, Kareem Fahim, gives short shrift to this view and also leaves un-refuted the strong suggestion (both by the text and headline) that Mubarak-era policies dictated how many children people could have, which is not true.
Family planning as a human right for Egyptian women, or men for that matter, is not mentioned at all. And while Fahim mentions that Cairo was the site of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, he leaves out the fact that the universal right of women to control their own fertility was in fact a cornerstone of that summit.
This exclusion is especially jarring considering the widely expressed concern of many, including the Wilson Center’s own Middle East Program, that new Islamist regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere may reverse progress on women’s rights, including reproductive rights.
Demographer Hassan Zaky’s contributions to the article deserved more exploration. “No one is saying we should concentrate only on family planning, or only on development,” he tells the reporter. “We need a mix. We don’t want the new regime to focus on one thing.”
Sources: The New York Times, UN.
Photo Credit: “Graffiti of the mother of Ahmad Serour,” courtesy of flickr user lobna.