Once again, this year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)—ostensibly themed on the prevention of violence against women and girls—actually focused on expanding so-called sexual and reproductive rights for women and girls, including abortion.
Prior to negotiations even beginning, media coverage preemptively pointed a finger at religion and culture for a supposed lack of consensus on the need to protect women and girls from violence. A New York Times editorial singled out “conservative hard-liners,” including American Christian groups and Muslim states, as well as the Vatican, Iran, and Russia for blame, suggesting they employ traditional values to justify the violation of women’s basic human rights. (The editorial board of The New York Times might be surprised to learn that sociological evidence and Christian theology alike argue against that accusation.)
Sadly, albeit ironically, delegations from the United States and European Union countries were the ones who seemed willing to sacrifice women’s genuine human rights in pursuit of expanded abortion rights when they pushed for references to “the inherent right to life, liberty, and security of persons,”—taken from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—to be removed from the negotiated text.
The U.S. and EU were not alone in calling for more expansive language on abortion and reproductive rights; several U.N. bureaucrats, such as Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, were outspoken in support of the same goal. A coalition of feminist organizations and abortion advocates circulated a statement highlighting their concerns over the outcome document negotiations, claiming:
[T]here should no longer be any contention on any issues related to the definition and intersectionality of women and girls experiencing violence against women, including in relations to sexual and reproductive health and rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, harmful practices perpetuated in the context of negative culture and traditions, among others. (Emphasis added.)
Abortion wasn’t the only hot-button issue that fueled the debates over the CSW outcome document; numerous debates ensued over the inclusion of the phrase “gender identity” and expanding “gay rights.” The U.S., which under the Obama Administration has been aggressive in promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as a priority of its foreign policy, took a leading role.
Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., conveyed the Obama Administration’s disappointment that the final document “did not explicitly recognize that women and girls should not suffer violence or discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” and promised that “the United States will continue to fight relentlessly to ensure equality for all people regardless of who they are or whom they love.”
In the final outcome, pro-life delegations and their pro-family allies effectively held the line against further expansion of so-called reproductive rights; abortion advocates succeeded only marginally in some of the language battles, but failed in their efforts to define access to abortion as a human right. Liberal activists were stymied in their attempt to create any new “gay rights,” as their efforts to include references to “gender identity” and “women who love women” in the negotiated text fell flat.
These battles over negotiated language, like the greater ideological ones that give rise to them, are far from over. Indeed, this year’s season of U.N. Commissions has just begun. One can hope that in future meetings U.N. delegates will engage sincere policy proposals to tackle concrete problems, step away from a monomaniacal focus on so-called reproductive and sexual rights, and seek to promote and protect the natural human rights of all men, women, and children.