UN Conference Battles to Define Vision for Achieving Better World for Women

(photo: CNS photo/Ali Hashisho, Reuters)

New York — “Just because we can agree on a goal, doesn’t mean we’ll agree on how to get there.” Such was the experience of the women who made up the living mosaic of languages and nationalities congregating at the United Nations last week.

The United Nations’ 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women hosted the “Beijing+15 Conference” from March 1-12 in New York. It gathered women from every region of the world — diplomats, representatives of non-government organizations (NGOs) and concerned citizens.

Beijing+15 was a follow-up to the 1995 UN International Conference on Women, held in the Chinese capital. The 1995 conference’s conclusive document, the “Beijing Platform for Action,” proposed strategies which addressed human rights particular to women and sought to advance the education, healthcare and political needs of women across the globe. The objective of Beijing+15 was to evaluate achievement of the goals established in the 1995 Platform, identify present challenges and recommit to a revised strategy for the future.

Although encompassing a wide range of issues, Beijing+15 has as a particular focus the reduction of the global maternal mortality rate. Reducing the global maternal mortality rate is also one of the UN’s broader Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set by the UN’s General Assembly in 2000 to be accomplished by 2015. Of all of the MDGs, the maternal mortality rate goal has advanced least over the past ten years.

But the cultural battle beneath the surface of Beijing+15 is the question of a universal “human right” to abortion, proposed as a panacea to maternal mortality around the globe.

The Battle for Culture

While the policy debates of Beijing+15 took place on the UN floor, the cultural battle took place in a thick circle of NGOs that surrounded the conference.

In six different venues within walking distance of the UN, dozens of special interest groups hosted side-sessions, addressing issues central to the policy debate and hoping to catch the ear of delegates, policy makers and activists.

In one such session, Amnesty International addressed a standing-room-only auditorium with a panel titled, “Maternal Mortality: Rights of Critical Concern.”

Carmen Baroso, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), one of the world’s largest abortion providers, made her case to the tightly packed audience: Maternal mortality rates can be reduced only by securing a universal human right to abortion. The logic is that a large percentage of maternal mortality is caused by unsafe and clandestine abortions, or could be avoided by access to abortion.

“A young girl today in El Salvador, a Catholic country, is condemned to death by cancer, while she is denied treatment because it will cause the death of the fetus,” Baroso claimed, apparently unaware that Catholic moral teaching allows pregnant women medical treatment for life-threatening illnesses, even if an unintended secondary effect is the death of the unborn child.

“Universally available, accessible, culturally acceptable and high quality reproductive rights and services for all women is the only way to protect women from the plague of maternal mortality. Sexual rights are human rights,” Baroso insisted.

Ana Christina Gonzalez Velez, social affairs officer of the UN Division of Gender Affairs, added, “States must avoid any religious influence in public policy. The Church cannot continue to be the moral tutor of society unless we want that morality to include the death of women.”

Sonnie Ekwowuski, a well-dressed and articulate lawyer from Nigeria, questioned their vision.

“I am a husband, a father, and a Nigerian,” he declared. “In Nigeria our women and daughters die in childbirth because of a lack of basic primary care. On all levels of Nigerian government it is undisputed that Nigeria needs primary health care for our women and children. Why do you have to link maternal mortality to abortion? Why does Planned Parenthood come here pushing their own agenda? Nigerians do not want your abortion clinics. Nigerians want health care.”

Ekwowuski’s comments created such loud booing and unrest that he had to relinquish the microphone.

Visibly upset, Ekwowuski later told the Register, “I am not even a Christian. This is not a religious issue. This is about real concern for our women and children. I cannot understand their way of thinking.”

Literature passed out outside the conference hall by members of National Right to Life and Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life Global Outreach supported his claim.

“The lack of modern medicine and quality health care, not the promotion of abortion, results in high maternal mortality rates,” it suggested. “Women generally at risk because of lack of access to a doctor, hospital or antibiotics before abortion’s legalization will face those same circumstances after legalization.”

Across the street, Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of the book “Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student,” led an exposition on the philosophy that drives International Planned Parenthood’s programs, which reach millions of youth and women from the first to the third world.

“It is the Karl Marx approach to infectious disease,” she said. “Their enemies are not viruses, disease, malnutrition or lack of health care. Their enemies are religion, Judeo-Christian values and traditional sexual ethics.”

The Battle for Policy

Back on the UN floor, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the assembly. “Women’s progress is human progress, and human progress is women’s progress,” Secretary Clinton insisted, calling global equality for women central to peace and progress in the 21st century.

She acknowledged advancements made over the last 15 years in women’s participation in the economic, political and cultural lives of their nations, especially in the developing world. But she also warned against the global rise of politically motivated sexual violence, forced childhood marriage and “gendercide,” in some parts of the world.

Clinton did not address a universal human right to abortion.

But Karen Richardson, assistant to the US State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, was present throughout the week, reassuring participants. “The President and the Secretary of State are determined to pass and adopt CEDAW policy,” Richardson reiterated at a side session sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union.

CEDAW — the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — is a controversial UN human rights treaty that affirms universal reproductive rights of women.

The Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N. also addressed the Assembly, recognizing global advancement in women’s education, poverty eradication, socio-political life, and legal status over the past 15 years.

Yet, in a message written by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, and read by a member of his staff, the Holy See warned, “This having been said, women continue to suffer in many parts of the world,” bringing attention to infanticide, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and human sex trafficking as examples.

The Holy See also asserted that global development work is too often ideologically driven, delaying the true advancement of women.

“[T]o link the achievement of personal, social, economic and political rights to a notion of sexual and reproductive health and rights which is violent to unborn human life is detrimental to the integral needs of women and men within society. … At the same time only seldom are women’s political, economic and social rights mentioned as an inescapable clause and commitment.”

The Holy See reiterated its commitment to improving the situation of women globally, especially the poorest, and called on all Catholic institutions for a concerted and prioritized strategy.

Awaiting Conclusions

After two weeks of deliberation and debate, the participating UN member states voted in a concluding document last Friday.

While not legally binding, the document’s influence promises to be very far-reaching. Taken as an international point of reference, it exerts political pressure on nations and international bodies by setting clear standards and expectations for development, law and public policy linked to educational, cultural and political advancement of women.

The document is expected to be made available to the public in the weeks to come.

Kirsten Evans is based in Washington, D.C.