NEW YORK — A United Nations treaty guaranteeing rights to the disabled narrowly failed Dec. 4 to get the necessary two-thirds majority it needed in the U.S. Senate to become part of American law, thanks to intense lobbying by parents’ rights groups, home-schoolers, pro-life Catholics and an immovable minority of Republican senators.
Sixty-one senators, mostly Democrats, voted for ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Thirty-eight senators, all Republicans, voted against it.
But because international treaties require a two-thirds Senate supermajority to be ratified, those 38 votes were more than enough to at least stall the measure, which has been ratified by more than 150 other countries over the past six years, until the newly elected 113th Congress replaces the outgoing 112th in January.
“We were quite happy to win,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). “We were nervous going into the vote, but so was [Sen.] John Kerry.” Kerry, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, was in charge of rounding up supporters for the U.N. treaty.
C-FAM opposed the treaty, along with the Holy See, because one of the program areas where the convention prohibited discrimination against the disabled was that of “reproductive health.” The Vatican opposed inclusion of this phrase from the start of the document’s drafting because of its potential to be interpreted to include abortion, and it continues to oppose any such interpretation of “reproductive health,” Ruse said.
But had the Senate ratified the disabilities treaty, the U.S. would have been accountable to a U.N. committee for its performance in complying with its provisions. According to Ruse and other pro-life U.N. watchdogs, the committees that monitor international human-rights treaties are notoriously ideological and pro-abortion in their interpretations of U.N. treaties.
For example, the Colombian high court recently used “non-binding” comments by U.N. committees to overrule a law protecting the unborn, while a U.N. committee on torture has called Nicaragua’s law protecting the unborn a form of torture.
American opponents of the disabilities treaty also insist its ratification is unnecessary.
“We don’t need this treaty,” said Ruse. “We already have the toughest law for disabled people in the world: the Americans With Disabilities Act.”
Nonetheless, some 300 disabilities, veterans and civil-rights groups joined the coalition lobbying for the treaty.
“That is why it was so close,” said Michael Ramey, spokesman for Parental Rights, the group that headed a much smaller coalition against the treaty. “Their side had instant sympathy with all the disabled people, and senators felt they had to support it.”
With only 40 member organizations, the opponents nonetheless mounted a strong blitz on the Senate after learning the Democrats planned to seek ratification during the dying days of the outgoing, lame-duck Senate.
Normally, Ramey told the Register, virtually every Republican and even some Democratic senators can be relied upon to vote against U.N. treaties on the principle of protecting national sovereignty. The Constitution, he said, identifies ratified international treaties as part of American law. And while the Supreme Court has made it clear that no treaty can undermine written constitutional guarantees such as freedom of religion, it is uncertain that less formalized legal rights, such as the rights of parents to bring up their children as they judge best, would prevail in court against such treaties.
What is feared by Parental Rights and its allies, such as C-FAM, the Family Research Council, the Home School Legal Defense Association, Concerned Women for America, Heritage Action, Patriot Voices, Eagle Forum, Joni & Friends and the American Conservative Union, is that the disability-rights treaty would give the federal government the legal authority to override parents, especially home-schooling and Christian parents.
‘Best Interests of the Child’
According to Ramey, opponents particularly fear the treaty’s usage of the legal phrase “in the best interest of the child” in elements of the treaty dealing with disabled minor children. The concern is that this phrase, which enjoins the state to intervene on behalf of children when it judges this necessary to protect their interests, could authorize governments to overrule parents with respect to how best care for their disabled children.
The home-school associations, many of whose members home school precisely because they found public schools inadequate for their disabled children’s needs, are concerned the state will wrest their children back into schools against parental desires.
The 85,000-member Home School Legal Defense Association cites a recent ruling by a judge in Botswana who cited the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1992 U.N. document which enshrined the “best interests of the child” concept into international law, to order four Seventh-Day Adventist families to send their children to public schools.
Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania and recent presidential candidate, was the most prominent Catholic home-schooling parent to speak out against the disabilities treaty. Santorum told a Washington press conference that the U.N. convention, “if ratified, threatens U.S. sovereignty and parental rights and would, effectively, put the U.S. under international law when it comes to parenting special-needs children. One provision in the treaty would give the government, acting under U.N. instructions, the ability to determine for all children with disabilities what is best for them.”
Santorum, whose own daughter Bella has a genetic disorder called trisomy 18, continued, “I don’t know about you, but I believe that in America that is the parents’ job, certainly not the government’s.”
Advocates for the treaty sought to paint their opponents as extremists, in part by highlighting moderate Republicans who supported the treaty. Treaty proponent and onetime Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was brought to the Senate floor in his wheelchair to rally support. “He is here,” Kerry said of his 89-year-old former Senate colleague, “because he wants to know that other countries will come to treat the disabled as we do.”
Susan Yoshihara, vice president of C-FAM, made a pointed reply to Kerry’s remarks in an article posted on The Hill’s Congress blog. In it, she noted that one way America currently treats the disabled is to abort 90% of babies with Down syndrome in the womb.
Post-vote comments by David Morrissey, executive director of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, made it clear the treaty’s supporters had believed they had sewn up a sufficient number of Republican senators, only to be abandoned by some Republicans, including Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts of Kansas, Kay Hutchison of Texas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, without warning at the last minute. They blamed the efforts of right-wing organizations for the defeat.
Safeguarding Parents' Rights
The treaty’s supporters promise to bring it back in the new Senate that convenes in January, but Parental Rights’ Ramey told the Register his group would be back as well.
Along with resisting any renewed drive for Senate ratification of the disabilities treaty, the group will be continuing its promotion of a constitutional amendment to institutionalize parental rights more fully into American law. The group is fairly confident it can secure two-thirds approval in the House of Representatives and the required support of three-quarters of the 50 U.S. states.
“The big hurdle is the Senate,” Ramey commented. “We are hoping sooner or later to get it passed there.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.