NEW YORK — The United States fought yet another lonely battle at the United Nations recently. But this time abortion — not Iraq — was the sticking point, and the U.S. found an ally in the Holy See.
The United Nations convened the two-week session of the Commission on the Status of Women, or Beijing+10, from Feb. 28-March 11, to reach consensus on a one-page declaration pledging and reaffirming the Plan of Action agreed to at the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women.
The Holy See backed the United States’ effort to prevent pro-abortion lobbying groups from spinning the language in the Beijing document — specifically its reference to “reproductive rights” — to include new rights such as abortion.
That language “has been of concern to the United States because it has been misinterpreted by many as giving some sort of a new universal global right to abortion,” Ambassador Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. Representative to the Commission on the Status of Women, explained at the conference.
The debate brought activists on both sides of the issue from across the globe to lobby delegates. Pro-life and pro-family groups sought to help delegates understand the stakes involved, which, they claim, include a possible challenge to national sovereignty.
“As we’ve seen in the United States, activist judges can cite international conventions to change the law of their own country,” said Peter Smith, secretary for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. “And then everything those countries have stood for for hundreds of years can be swept away.”
Just as the U.N. meeting was getting under way, the U.S. Supreme Court March 1 declared unconstitutional the capital punishment of those who committed capital crimes when they were juveniles. Justice Anthony Kennedy cited a U.N. convention in his majority opinion.
Smith joined forces during the two-week session with other pro-life and pro-family groups, including the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute; Red Familia; the Movement for the Advancement of Rights, Virtue, Education and Leadership; and students from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, to encourage delegates to support the U.S. delegation’s efforts.
Lea Sevcik, legal counsel for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said that there were approximately 160 volunteers affiliated with her group alone.
Only the Holy See
Jeanne Head, U.N. representative for the National Right to Life Committee, gave the volunteers credit for making their voices heard amid a loud pro-abortion lobbying effort.
“We have had very competent and professional volunteers here on their own time to support the U.S. in protecting nations from the Western world’s failed social policies,” she said.
The United States controlled the debate on the declaration throughout the first week of the conference. Representatives proposed an amendment to the document, clarifying that the Beijing Conference did not create any new international human rights and did not include the right to abortion.
In response, a coalition of pro-abortion groups issued a joint statement calling the amendment a step backward and an effort to undermine the Beijing Platform for Action.
Only the Holy See publicly supported the amendment, which the United States eventually dropped. The lack of support frustrated pro-life groups.
Two who commented were the co-founders of the Movement for the Advancement of Rights, Virtue, Education and Leadership, Jennifer Kimball and Elizabeth Gadd.
“There were pro-life countries that wanted to support the U.S., but they either didn’t understand the need for the amendment or were afraid to stand with the U.S. against the likes of the European Union,” said Kimball.
“We tried to get them to understand that their voice is important,” said Gadd. She said that some of the African French-speaking countries, with whom she worked during the session, feared they could lose aid if they sided with the United States.
After the U.S. dropped the amendment, the declaration was adopted by consensus. U.S. representatives went along but made it clear that no new rights had been recognized. Costa Rica and Nicaragua, though silent during the debate over the U.S.-proposed amendment, expressed similar reservations.
No New Rights
Sauerbrey told delegates that the original Beijing document did not create legally binding obligations on states under international law.
“Based on consultations this week with states, we further understand that states do not understand the Beijing or Beijing+5 outcome documents to constitute support, endorsement or promotion of abortion,” she added.
In the end, both sides of the debate claimed victory.
Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, said in a prepared statement, “We are thrilled that the world’s governments, together with NGOs, have persuaded the U.S. to join consensus on women’s human rights. As we now move into negotiations on specific issues, such as trafficking and economic advancement for women, we hope the U.S. will continue in a spirit of consensus building.”
But pro-life activists took a different view.
“In one way it was a defeat because no one supported the U.S. amendment,” said Sevcik. “But in another way it was a win because no one could state that Beijing made abortion an international right.”
“The U.S. succeeded in getting the rest of the world to verify that Beijing did not create new rights or the right to abortion. No country spoke up and said it did,” stated Head, who had been at the original Beijing conference. “Pro-choice groups failed to advance their agenda then and, because of the U.S., they failed now as well.”
Eduardo Llull writes
from New York.