NEW YORK — Abortion activists at the United Nations have forced the Vatican to announce that it will not sign the U.N.’s new Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.
During negotiations at U.N. headquarters in New York, abortion-friendly national delegations — especially the influential European Union delegation — lobbied successfully for the inclusion of language referring to “sexual and reproductive health” in Article 25 of the convention. Article 25 deals with health issues.
Abortion supporters in Western countries and abortion lobbyists at the United Nations have interpreted “reproductive health” as including access to abortion.
On Feb. 1, Vatican Information Service’s daily press release highlighted the Holy See’s decision not to sign the Disabilities Convention because of the “reproductive health” reference.
The press release quoted remarks that Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations in New York, made in December when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the convention.
Archbishop Migliore noted that “in some countries reproductive health services include abortion, thus denying the inherent right to life of every human being, affirmed by article 10 of the Convention.”
Said Archbishop Migliore, “It is surely tragic that … the same convention created to protect persons with disabilities from all discrimination in the exercise of their rights may be used to deny the very basic right to life of disabled unborn persons. For this reason, and despite the many helpful articles this convention contains, the Holy See is unable to sign it.”
The convention is open for the formal process of signing on March 30. It will come into force internationally after 20 nations have signed it, but it will not apply to nations that decline to sign.
Jesuit Father Robert Araujo, a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome who has served as a legal adviser to the Holy See at U.N. negotiations, attended some of the early negotiating sessions for the Disabilities Convention.
Father Araujo described the convention as “a good and well-motivated project” that was strongly influenced by international abortion lobbyists who persuaded sympathetic national delegations to introduce the “reproductive health” language.
Said Father Araujo, “I think the concern was clearly putting into a treaty something dealing with code language that would signify abortion as finally being recognized.”
Pro-abortion delegations such as the European Union and Canada that have backed the use of “reproductive health” language in U.N. documents generally have declined to comment about whether the term includes access to abortion.
One exception occurred in the spring of 2001, during preparatory negotiations over the conference document for the U.N. Child Summit. Pressured by a U.S. delegate to state whether a reference to “reproductive health services” included access to abortion, a Canadian delegate acknowledged that Canada interpreted the term that way.
While “reproductive health” has appeared previously in other international documents, until the Disabilities Convention the phrase has never been included in an international treaty. In this “hard law” context, Father Araujo said, it could carry much more weight as an international precedent for creating an international “human right” to abortion.
Some prominent pro-life organizations that participated in the Disabilities Convention’s negotiations say that pro-lifers made some important gains.
According to Austin Ruse, president of Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (F-FAM), the inclusion of language that requires provision of medical care, food or fluids to disabled people was particularly important.
“This is the first time anything like that has appeared in a U.N. convention,” Ruse said. “So that was a major stride forward.”
Regarding the reference to “reproductive health,” Ruse noted that the phrase has never been defined in any U.N. document as including abortion and is not defined that way in the Disabilities Convention.
Additionally, a number of countries, including the United States, issued clarifying statements specifying that the “reproductive health” reference is not connected to abortion.
“The United States understands that the phrase reproductive health does not include abortion, and its use in paragraph 25 (a) does not create any abortion rights, and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement or promotion of abortion,” the American statement said.
Ruse said that C-FAM is asking delegations that decide to sign the Disabilities Convention to submit similar statements.
Said Ruse, “When they sign it, we are urging all of them to include interpretive statements or reservations that make it clear that their understanding of the phrase is that it doesn’t include a right to abortion.”
But according to Father Araujo, international committees and national courts are not bound to adhere to anything that is not in the convention’s official text. That means they could interpret Article 25 as mandating a right to abortion, no matter how many countries submit interpretive statements to the contrary.
Said Father Araujo, “It’s a particular danger, because you never really know who might have some authority to interpret it. And the fact that a particular country, or even a group of countries, have given the meaning some restrictions — that doesn’t matter to the interpretive authority.”
Another reason for concern that the Disabilities Convention could be used by activists to promote abortion is the fact that supporters of the “reproductive health” language demanded its inclusion in the final text despite widespread opposition.
Language in U.N. documents is usually adopted by reaching an informal “consensus.” And while “consensus” is not defined by the United Nations, generally it is assumed to have been reached only when virtually all delegations have come into agreement.
However, 23 countries specifically opposed the inclusion of the “reproductive health” language throughout the final round of negotiations for the Disabilities Convention last summer. Nonetheless, the New Zealand chairman of the negotiations insisted on its inclusion in the final text.
“They are supposed to work by consensus,” said C-FAM’s Ruse. “Twenty-three governments objected to the inclusion of this language for two solid weeks, and in the end it was included.”
EU delegation spokeswoman Katharina Ahrendts said she didn’t “really want to get into a debate” about whether the United Nations had failed to follow its normal rules for arriving at consensus during the negotiations over whether to include the “reproductive health” language. But Ahrendts said that the fact that the convention was later approved by the General Assembly indicates that the international community had agreed on the inclusion of the language.
Ahrendts also ducked the question of whether EU countries interpret “reproductive health” to include abortion. “I can’t tell you in detail” whether any EU countries do so, she said, since EU members have “widely different” national laws on abortion.
Ahrendts said in the view of the EU, the Disabilities Convention “does not create any new human rights.” But it was “logical” to include the contentious “reproductive health” language in the convention, she added, because “it is agreed language in other human rights documents” dealing with equal rights for groups of people.
Father Araujo said that disabled people who were participating in the convention’s negotiations were aware of the cruel irony of including language that might be used to promote abortion as an international human right.
Said Father Araujo, “I spoke with a number of them, and they realized that if abortion was sooner or later declared to be an international human right, many of them would never have been born.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.