UNITED NATIONS — Seeking to influence the Commission on Population and Development, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a 47-member group last week that millions of girls — teenagers and younger — need access to abortion and contraceptives. His comments, including an assertion that the nations of the world must provide “reproductive health care,” came April 23 as the U.N. Commission on Population and Development gathered for its 45th meeting. During the week, the commission was dominated by controversy, as members debated the contents of their outcome document focused on adolescents and youth.
Reaction to the secretary general’s comments by some member states and non-governmental organizations was strong.
As Denise Mountenay of the Endeavour Forum said, “There is a propaganda campaign agenda to push comprehensive unrestrained sexuality education into nations.”
She said that such education would only lead to further sexual promiscuity and more sexually transmitted diseases.
According to Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, the secretary general has no authority to make such a call. “There is no basis in international law for making such a call, and there is no basis in U.N. documents to make such a call,” Ruse said. “The secretary general is on his own speaking without authority.”
Ban’s comments came following the release of a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report in late April drawing attention to the challenges of HIV/AIDS and unintended pregnancy faced by young people around the globe.
“We cannot ignore the facts,” said Ban. “Many young people are sexually active, and, because of this, they may face risks to their health.”
Ban also submitted a new report to the commission produced by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), stating that urgent action is needed to protect young people’s rights to sexual and reproductive health.
The commission meeting resulted in the adoption on April 27 of a 10-page document on adolescents and youth, despite protracted consultations and disagreements among members. In the end, Indonesian member and the commission’s chairman, Hasan Kleib, urged the commission to “make a last effort to bridge differences.” Ultimately, the chairman’s text was adopted.
“Consensus is the basis for our work,” commented Pio Wennubst of Switzerland, the vice chairman of the commission.
Fighting for Positive Language
Ruse described the outcome document as a “low-level document that will be sent to the General Assembly in the fall.”
“It will not have much effect in anything except feeding into the global conversation of people who believe in these things,” he suggested.
Some participants, however, saw the gathering as an opportunity to advance their agenda prior to the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development taking place in Brazil in June.
“The 2012 CPD outcome document will serve as a foundation for major upcoming international negotiations on sustainable development and population,” wrote Suzanne Ehlers, president of Population Action International, at The Huffington Post. “We’ve deemed it a strategic investment of time and energy. … This huge share of the world’s population needs access to contraception and a range of sexual and reproductive health services.”
Harpreet Paul, representing Amnesty International, called on the commission to top its agenda with the “right to sexual and reproductive health as an integral part of the lives of adolescents and youth. The commission must ensure protection of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights, as well as access to comprehensive sexuality education, information and services for adolescents and youth and the removal of legal, policy and cultural barriers, including the requirement of parental and spousal consent for young people.”
The World Youth Alliance (WYA), representing more than 1 million young people globally, sent a team of 22 youth, along with Elyssa Koren, director of advocacy for WYA, to work toward an outcome document with more balanced language.
“The original draft primarily focused on sexual and reproductive health services, which is a euphemism for abortion,” said Koren. “We take a firm stance against language that is contrary to the dignity of the human person.”
Koren worked to include positive language and to highlight the fact that youth have real concerns about issues other than sexuality, such as access to vocational training, education, basic sanitation and nutrition and employment. She noted that African, Arab, and Latin American member states also desired a more balanced document.
Koren noted the emergence of “insidious terminology” concerning privacy and confidentiality for youth and the removal of all legal and cultural barriers that would prevent youth from receiving reproductive health services.
Koren felt that pro-family forces were victorious in ensuring that the role and rights of parents were retained in the document. She said that WYA’s representatives support the term “reproductive health,” but not the term “reproductive health services” because of how that term has become corrupted over the past 10 years.
The World Youth Alliance was particularly proud of the inclusion of one particular sentence in the final outcome document: “Recognizing further that adolescents and youth in all countries are a major resource for development and key agents for social change, economic development and technological innovation …” (Paragraph 8, CPD Resolution 2012).
“There are still three mentions of reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education, but we won most of the major battles we were fighting,” said Koren. “Our colleagues felt it was the best document from the past three years. It was definitely more balanced than the original draft.”
The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute was also generally pleased with the outcome. In spite of youth activism sponsored by International Planned Parenthood Federation and the International Women's Health Coalition, "countries rejected their demands and produced a fairly balanced outcome document that focues on more pressing youth concerns like education, employment, health and development."
"Similarly, any reference to sexual and reproductive rights in the document was explicitly understood by countries not to include abortion as a method of family planning," wrote C-Fam's Timothy Herrmann on the organization's website.
Observers cautioned against any international efforts to control population.
“The last thing which developing nations need is a lethal Western cocktail of abortion and paternalistic population-control measures,” said British Member of Parliament Lord David Alton. “Advocates of this approach should study the story of Chen Guangcheng, the blind, self-taught human-rights lawyer who has sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, if they want to know where such anti-life and oppressive policies lead.”
“Chen Guangcheng and I have been fighting the same battle for years,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and a leading expert on China. “I am an eyewitness to forced abortions, coercive sterilizations and infanticide in China. Chen … documented 7,000 cases of forced abortions in one small part of Shantung province.”
Still, voices within the United Nations continue to advocate for sexual education, sexual health services and reproductive rights.
“Many assume that all young people have access to information,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA. “However, this is not true for all adolescents and youth across the world. In fact, many of these issues are still a major challenge for the majority of young people in developing countries.”
Ruse noted that, despite such voices, member states such as Chile, Malta, Poland, the Holy See and many African and Arab members profoundly disagree that universal access to abortion and contraception is called for in international law.
“The direction which the commission is going right now is a creature of the 1994 Cairo Conference,” said Ruse. “That’s when this steady drumbeat for access to abortion began. It’s the direction of the ‘pelvic left.’”
Added Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute: “If this U.N. Commission on Population and Development were really concerned for the welfare of women, it would have implanted what Nirj Deva, vice president of the European Parliament’s Development Committee and president of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute’s International Committee on Human Dignity, demanded last month: a gender audit.
“Deva asked that every abortion paid for by taxpayers’ money should have the sex of the destroyed baby recorded and published, so that people could see to what extent their taxes were being used to fund gendercide. The absence of such a gender audit shows clearly that this U.N. commission is not interested in the authentic needs of women.”
Tim Drake is the Register's senior writer.