My mission to Azerbaijan earlier this month was not only a personal first to this West Asia Nation, but was a first for Human Life International (HLI). The goal was to assess the situation and help a pro-life group get organized. It was a very busy trip, with over a dozen events, mostly speaking to various groups about organizing, fetal development, debate and chastity.
Azerbaijan is a country of almost overwhelming contrasts. Its capital of Baku is spotlessly clean, but 20 miles away is the most ecologically devastated region on earth, capable of killing you if you linger in the wrong place for too long. Despite being 94 percent Muslim, the country gave a collective shrug upon hearing about the death of Osama Bin Laden. The 600-foot-high ultramodern “Flame Towers” shadow the adjacent ancient mosque. And the Baku-based biznizmen park their customized Mercedes next to battered Soviet-era Ladas. Of all of Azerbaijan’s contradictions and contrasts, however, the most startling is the rise of the culture of death among a people who treasure their children.
Azeris adore babies, and stare with incomprehension at anyone who says that they do not want children, yet three out of four Azeri pregnancies end in abortion. This nation also suffers from the highest sex imbalance among newborns in the world due to sex-selective abortions. Abortion is simply a way of life here. There is no controversy over it, and questioning it is met with the same reaction as if you ask why people eat or sleep. This is the result of decades of living under the most anti-life regime in history. Evil is at first resisted, then tolerated, then accepted and finally becomes banal, just part of everyday life.
Although the government would like to reduce the numbers of abortions, it is going about it the wrong way – by attempting to flood society with contraceptives, which only makes matters worse. The United States has been saturated with “reproductive health” services for more than four decades now, but has also had more than 53 million abortions. However, such appeals to reason fall on deaf ears in Baku, and elsewhere, because the most rabidly anti-life organizations in the world are spending millions of dollars every year destroying life to “protect” and “empower” women. These groups include EngenderHealth, the Adventist Development and Relief Association (ADRA), Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and, of course, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
No political authority in Azerbaijan has explained why all of this population control is necessary. In 1965, Azeri women averaged 5.6 children per family; now the birth rate is below replacement at 1.9 children per family, and is projected to soon plunge to only 1.3 – a level from which no country has ever recovered. In effect, these population control groups are assisting in the suicide of the nation of Azerbaijan.
There is still hope for Azerbaijan, despite the dismal numbers, due to a small but determined community of pro-life Christians. There are only about 300 Catholics and 50,000 other Christians in the entire country. Six Don Bosco priests and three brothers from Slovakia, along with four of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity, work to protect life from the only Catholic parish in the country, Immaculate Conception in Baku. Add to this a couple of very pro-life (but small) Baptist churches and a handful of enthusiastic lay people, and you have the foundation of a national movement to protect human life.
The most memorable part of the mission was a trip was to Sumqayit, considered to be the most ecologically devastated area in the world. Locals call it “Soviet Pride, Azerbaijan’s Hell,” because the Soviets decided to concentrate most of their chemical industry here in the 1940s. In typical Soviet fashion, the annual 130,000 tons of poisonous waste from the industries was not processed, but simply dumped into the Caspian Sea. There are so many pollutants heavily concentrated in the air, water and earth that scientists cannot even begin to determine which ones are causing the extremely high rate of cancers and birth defects in the area.
The city is known for its large “Baby Cemetery,” with thousands of graves, many with the traditional photo of the baby engraved on smooth marble. Many of these show severe and shocking birth defects.
I gave a talk on fetal development to about twenty people in a cramped Soviet-style apartment, and wondered why several of the women kept their hands under blankets in the simmering heat. At the end of the presentation, when I shook their hands, I found out — they had birth defects, too.
Upon traveling back to Baku, we held an organizational meeting with pro-life leaders at the Immaculate Conception church, and charted the way forward. We agreed to start slowly, with intensive pro-life training first, followed by demonstrating to the government that teaching natural family planning (NFP) is the best and healthiest option — for women, for marriages, and for the nation. Human Life International will be with these gallant people all the way, because although the challenges are great, so too will be the rewards of their labors.
Once a nation’s people get addicted to abortion, it is almost impossible for them to turn away from it and embrace life. But we have confidence that Azerbaijan, with a strong pro-life presence and the urging of the Holy Spirit, will soon see how disastrous the culture of death can be, and will fully embrace life.
LifeNews.com Note: Brian Clowes is Director of Research and Training for Human Life International. He has travelled to over 50 nations worldwide, has written extensively in various media, and has written ten books, including the recently released Pro-Life Pastoral Handbook. With affiliates and associates in over 100 nations worldwide, HLI is the world’s largest international pro-life organization.