There's ‘little awareness’ of right-to-life message, 26-year-old reports

TORONTO—A Canadian student is back in Toronto after nearly six weeks of lobbying for the pro-life, pro-family position at two United Nations conferences in Europe.

Charmaine Graves, 26, an international relations student at the University of Toronto, traveled to Rome in July to represent the International Right to Life federation and Canada's Campaign Life Coalition at meetings to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC). It was a heady time for Graves, given some of the controversies surrounding the creation of this new international court.

After a brief return to Toronto, Graves flew to Lisbon, Portugal in mid-August to attend the First World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth. The conference was called to find ways of allowing young people to take on greater decision making “at all levels and spheres of society.”

In Rome and Lisbon, Graves and her pro-life colleagues lobbied national delegations to ensure that the right to life voice was not lost in the diplomatic shuffle.

Pro-life, pro-family organizations have made it a priority to send lobbyists to international conferences to counter what many see as the United Nations' increasing support for radical feminist objectives. The Holy See has also made numerous interventions at past UN gatherings to defend the dignity of the human person and the traditional family.

Often, however, pro-life and pro-family voices are swamped by other voices calling for new definitions of marriage, family, and gender roles. The Women's Caucus for Gender Justice attended the Rome meeting and has been a major player at previous UN conferences.

Graves had little idea she would be working on the international stage when she was hired in May as a summer student with Campaign Life Coalition, Canada's leading pro-life organization. However, the Cape Breton, Nova Scotia native quickly found the international experience eye-opening.

“We didn't enjoy total success at the conferences, but I found it exciting to bring the right to life viewpoint to international delegates,” Graves told the Register. “So many of them seemed open to our message. It was surprising how little awareness there is about the right to life message among these people.”

At the Rome conference, pro-life lobbyists were leery of a proposal to include the term “enforced pregnancy” in the list of crimes that could be tried by the International Criminal Court. Many saw the use of the term enforced pregnancy — even if it was the result of rape — as an attempt to undermine any federal legislation limiting abortion on demand.

Just prior to the Rome conference, for example, the Vatican expressed concern over the use of the enforced pregnancy language on the international war crimes list. Other Church groups, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, voiced similar concerns. In a recent letter to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Montreal's Archbishop Jean-Claude Turcotte, president of the Canadian bishops'conference, called for “forcible impregnation” to replace the term enforced pregnancy.

“The distinction between enforced pregnancy and forcible impregnation is a vital one which may have been overlooked in the legitimate and understandable haste to make this aggravated form of rape subject to clear and effective sanctions,” Archbishop Turcotte said. “We are very concerned that if the term enforced pregnancy is retained, pregnancy itself could be considered a crime, or abortions compelled to avoid prosecution, and that the perpetrators could escape without accountability.”

This was also the view of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a New York-based organization that monitors United Nations activity.

In a report published on the Institute's Web site, director Austin Ruse said concerns about the United Nations' International Criminal Court overriding national sovereignty are not unfounded, especially when it comes to right to life issues. Ruse is one of many North American pro-lifers who believe the United Nations has shifted away from its humanitarian founding principles to embrace a contraception mentality.

“The concern of the pro-life, pro-family world has always been that this [UN] tribunal could be used for purely ideological and destructive ends,” Ruse said. “With the proposed International Criminal Court statutes, there exists language that could make pro-life advocates war criminals simply by working on behalf of the unborn child.”

Although delegates to the Rome conference changed the term enforced pregnancy to a more narrowly defined “forced pregnancy,” pro-lifers are wary that the ICC could be the first step in a concerted effort to outlaw any restrictions on abortion.

Despite some lingering concerns, Graves was inspired by the overall experience in Rome. She said she did not feel overwhelmed as a young person among so many experienced diplomats and world travelers.

“In many ways it was inspiring to share our information with the delegates. I was eager to note if they are aware of some of the anti-family elements of the United Nations'agenda,” she said.

Graves recalled being positively received by most groups at the two conferences, particularly delegates from Africa and Third World countries. Unfortunately, she added, the Canadian delegation, along with those from western European countries, were unreceptive to pro-life overtures.

“We more or less avoided them with our efforts,” Graves said, “because we knew they would be unfavorable to the right to life position.”

In Lisbon, Graves was preoccupied with efforts to have a pro-family attitude enshrined in an international declaration of the rights of young people. She was gratified to see the inclusion of the family and marriage “as the basic units of society” added to the official Lisbon Declaration.

Nonetheless, the declaration also contains a number of problem areas for pro-life supporters, particularly its support for youth access to “reproductive health care” and family planning methods of their choice. By UN definition, reproductive health care and family planning refer to access to abortion and contraception.

Furthermore, the Lisbon Declaration contains no references to parental responsibility in children's access to reproductive health information. Graves said this could mean parents having no control over the kinds of family planning information available to their children.

Graves believes her experiences in both Rome and Lisbon have given her a deeper commitment to uphold right-to-life values on a larger scale. She echoed the view of many Canadian pro-life activists that United Nations' initiatives must be closely monitored for their tendency to downplay or ignore long-held humanitarian ideals.

As Jim Hughes, president of Campaign Life Coalition, advised Graves prior to her departure overseas, “We can't underestimate the very serious danger to life and family inherent in these UN initiatives … as they attempt to bypass elected legislatures and local customs to impose a radical social doctrine on all the nations of the world.”

Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.

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