Abortion Politics at the United Nations

Steven Mosher
By Joseph A. D'Agostino
PRI Weekly Briefing
7 April 2005
Vol. 7 / No. 13
Reproduced with Permission

Abortion politics pops up everywhere. All this week at United Nations headquarters, the UN Commission on Population and Development is meeting to discuss strategy in combating HIV/AIDS. As one speaker at the conference put it, AIDS has afflicted so many people in some developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, that "HIV/AIDS is no longer only a public health issue, but a population and economic development issue as well." With HIV adult infection rates at 10%, 20%, or even over 30% in some sub-Saharan African countries, the AIDS epidemic is rapidly altering the demographics and economies of these nations for the worse. As the epidemic spreads rapidly among girls and women, who now make up a majority of new HIV cases, the future effects on African populations will be worse than those experienced thus far.

HIV's devastation has provided the pretext for yet another International organ, the UN Economic and Social Council's Commission on Population And Development, to renew the promotion of "sexual and reproductive rights" and "sexual and reproductive health services" in developing countries. Not only have these programs worsened the HIV/AIDS crisis by promoting promiscuity and unnatural practices among youth, teaching people that condoms prevent the spread of disease (they may slow the spread, but even this is unclear), and establishing Third World reproductive health clinics that transmit disease from person to person due to poor sanitary practices, but the phraseology used to authorize them has been interpreted to include the "right" to and "service" of abortion. Those of us here in New York attending this conference representing pro-life non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would like the delegates to make clear that if they adopt the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights and services, they do not mean to include abortion. (It would likely be too much to ask them to drop the promotion of sex education and condom use, and we are not even trying.)

Anyone who has followed the activities of previous UN conferences such as those in Cairo, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), and Beijing should know that the UN has already adopted language promoting sexual and reproductive rights and services. In fact, delegate after delegate here has approvingly cited the ICDP plan of action's call for "universal access to reproductive health services by 2015." So why are we concerned about such language in the resolutions that this meeting adopts?

When such language was adopted by UN conferences in the 1990s, we were assured that it would not be used to promote abortion around the world.

We were told reproductive rights included the right to abortion only in those countries where abortion was already legal. Since then, we have seen the lie.

The UN Compliance Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has pressured the governments of numerous countries to liberalize their abortion laws. The most recent example is Paraguay. Other nations include Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Luxembourg, Ireland, Italy, Croatia, Nepal, and Samoa. The Human Rights Committees in Geneva have used such language to push abortion on Poland, Malta, Chile, and Morocco. And pro-abortion NGOs such as the International Women's Health Coalition cite this UN language in their efforts to legalize abortion around the globe.

If reproductive rights language is repeatedly inserted into one UN declaration after another, it could become part of customary international law, which is often cited by UN bureaucrats to justify interference into the internal laws of various countries. It can also be cited by activist judges around the world who like to use international law to trump their own countries' laws, as the U.S. Supreme Court is increasingly inclined to do.

This is why it is important to amend this conference's draft resolution to make it clear that it is not endorsing abortion rights. We are asking that a simple phrase be added to a paragraph of the resolution reaffirming the ICDP's previously adopted plan of action: "while understanding that nothing therein creates a right to abortion."

Delegate after delegate has assured us that they do not wish to promote abortion and that "reproductive rights" does not include a right to abortion in countries where abortion is illegal. The executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) told me herself that she does not want her agency to promote or perform abortions, as it has so often in the past. So perhaps this amendment will be adopted without controversy?