New York — Perched on a crooked row of folding chairs in the basement of a Manhattan parish sit 21-year-old Tyler Ament and 12 of his close friends.
With their backpacks strewn on the floor, they listen attentively, nodding intently, as a clean cut New York lawyer leans across a narrow podium and delivers a pop course on the do’s and don’ts of diplomacy in a high-profile world.
A senior at Christendom College in Virginia, Tyler and his classmates have decided to spend their spring break in New York City — lobbying at the United Nations.
From March 1-12, the U.N. was the site of Beijing +15: The 54th Commission on the Status of Women. Beijing +15 was one of a series of international U.N. conferences dedicated to the global needs of women in the areas of education, health care, poverty eradication, and political and legal rights.
While an effective platform for advancing much needed development, the “Beijing” conferences have been controversial. Some seek to manipulate the conferences as a vehicle for establishing sweeping global access to abortion and a “universal human right” to abortion, under the auspices of legitimate maternal-child health care.
The Christendom students were invited to participate in the conference through the Edmund Burke Fellowship, an annual program that offers youth the opportunity to lobby at the U.N. during their spring break. The New York-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam), a non-governmental organization dedicated to monitoring and influencing the social policy debate at the United Nations and other international institutions, sponsors the Fellowship. College and law students from institutions around the country attend.
Terence McKeegan, vice president and senior counsel for C-Fam, coached the students about to become lobbyists. “As you start this week you need to start thinking of yourselves as missionaries,” McKeegan told them. “You have come to the U.N., and this is the greatest mission territory on earth.”
This is Tyler’s second year as a Burke Fellow. Commenting on his expectations for the week he said, “Last year I came to the U.N. and was surprised that I was able to make a difference through my work with one of the delegates. This year I hope to do the same.”
When asked what delegates the fellows found most open, Tyler responded, “The African delegates and the Latin American delegates are very open. They are grateful to find young people encouraging them to look for options besides abortion to address the problems of maternal and child health in their countries. In the face of pressure from bigger countries, sometimes they feel they have no choice. They are looking for encouragement.”
Dennis Toscano, a philosophy major at Christendom, is from Colombia and has used his Latin American heritage and linguistic skills to gain the ear of delegates from the region, meeting with some of them one-on-one to discuss the questions of women’s health, human life, and public policy. “If we were not here,” he said, “no one would be. It is a privilege to represent pro-life people from around the world.”
Vast Majority are Pro-Life
But the Edmund Burke Fellows were not alone. Pockets of other well-dressed, eager youth paced the halls, pursuing delegates from faraway places to talk about policies being proposed on the U.N. floor. The most striking thing about these youth? The vast majority was pro-life.
“I came to the U.N. to tell my personal story,” beamed Hannah Shine, a peppy, articulate 17-year-old from Temple, Texas. “I was born with a congenital disease, and the doctors recommended that my mother abort me,” she offered with confidence. “Here I am today, happy to be alive, and I have come to the U.N. to tell the world that abortion is not the answer to disease.”
Hannah was part of a larger group of young women from Texas, all boasting bright pink “Purity is Power” buttons on their lapels, who came to accompany the women of the pro-life NGO Endeavor Forum in their lobbying efforts at the U.N.
“Lots of countries think that Americans are pro-abortion,” pipes in 16-year-old Lindsey Emmons, Hannah’s friend. “We are here to show the world that we are not.”
But not all of the pro-life presence at Beijing +15 conference were youth. Seasoned pro-life activists from around the globe converged on the U.N.
Molly White is the founder and director of Women for Life International, a Texas-based NGO dedicated to educating women on life issues and aiding women in an unwanted pregnancy. Her own life story is relevant. Molly is also a member of Conceived in Rape, a network of people conceived in violence. Eight men and women from the Network came to the U.N. to share their stories.
“A child conceived in rape is nameless and faceless, and it is easy to disregard the life of someone nameless and faceless,” White told the Register. “We are here to put a name and face on the unborn, and through our own personal stories, spread the message that all human life deserves protection.”
Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, attended previous U.N. women’s conferences. “It is amazing to see the pro-life presence at this conference,” she said. “We are much more organized then we were five years ago. When you walk through the halls the pro-life lobby is strongly felt.”
On the U.N. floor, the delegations of Iran, Qatar, Saint Lucia and Syria hosted a panel discussion titled “Recognizing the Critical Role of Mothers in Society.”
Alongside their delegates sat guest panelists: Dr. Theresa Okafor, director of the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage; Christine de Vollmer, president of the Latin American Alliance for the Family; Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International; and Alveda King, civil rights advocate and niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Mothers shape the future,” King exhorted the packed assembly. “Let us assure that women who are mothers are not harmed by our programs. Motherhood begins the moment she is pregnant. Let us work together to assure that pregnant women and their sons and daughters survive pregnancy. Let us treat our future with reverence and respect.”
Not everyone was in agreement. Volumes of literature and hundreds of side-sessions were available for delegates by organizations promoting global expansion of abortion rights.
A representative of Catholics for Choice, in one of the side sessions, addressed a group of pro-life youth, saying, “We are also here to fight for a right to life — the lives of women. Life deserves protection, but the life of a woman should be given priority over the life of a fetus. The right to life of women is more important. Are we mistaken by fighting for a woman’s right to her own life?”
As the conference came to a close the pro-life lobbyists generally felt good about their impact.
“In the last days of the conference several delegates from the developing world spoke out strongly in defense of life, carefully addressing terms that could be used to shelter a pro-abortion agenda. Our big fear was that universal human right to abortion would be negotiated into the documents. Deliberation seemed to be effectively contained to smaller points of policy,” said one pro-life lobbyist.
Still, many pro-life delegates admitted being nervous that the final language surrounding maternal mortality will include a mandate to globally expand abortion programming.
The concluding document of the Beijing +15 session will not be made public until sometime in the coming weeks.
Back at the Edmund Burke Fellows’ base camp, students packed up their things to head back to campus. Dennis Toscano was asked about the most memorable moment of his week.
“Meeting the Holy See’s delegation,” was his answer. “It is not the voice of a nation; it is the voice of the Church, which spans all nations. Many people did not agree with the Holy See, but when the Holy See spoke you could hear a pin drop. That is the voice of a moral leader. People knew they needed to listen.”
Then he swiped his backpack up off the floor, and headed for the door. Mission accomplished.
Kirsten Evans is based in Washington, D.C.