Late week, United States signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the first binding United Nations treaty to mention "sexual and reproductive health." The term has provoked concern among pro-lifers, who worry that it creates an implicit right to abortion. Let us emphatically state: It does not.
There is some confusion about UN documents related to abortion — and the proponents of abortion like it that way. Their strategy is to claim that terms like "reproductive health" mean abortion, and, by dint of repetition, get people to believe that it does. Pro-abortion groups claim "reproductive health" means abortion, and, most famously, so does US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but that is not how the term is used in any negotiated UN document.
Take the Disabilities Convention. The term was debated extensively, and it was clear throughout negotiations that "sexual and reproductive health" did not include abortion. This was recognized repeatedly by the Chairman, who said that no new rights — and specifically no right to abortion — were created. Indeed, the official report of the proceedings stated that "this phrase was not intended to alter or prejudice the general policies of governments," thus acknowledging that countries are free to keep their laws protecting the unborn in place.
At least 15 nations made statements that the phrase did not create a right to abortion. The US in its closing statement affirmed that the term "cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion."
Yet this history is sometimes lost. Pro-lifers do the unborn a disfavor when they start repeating the talking points of the other side. Articles have appeared in the pro-life press recently saying that the Disabilities Convention "establishes an international right to abortion". It does no such thing, and nothing pleases groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights and International Planned Parenthood Federation more than to have our side repeat their revisionist narrative.
For rewriting the history of UN conferences is part of the strategy pro-abortion groups adopt. Take, for example, the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994. This conference was a victory for pro-lifers, who beat back a concerted attempt by the Clinton Administration and their European allies to establish a right to abortion. Yet following defeat, the other side has tried to rewrite the story as a victory for abortion rights.
This is false for a number of reasons, and pro-lifers should arm themselves with facts to rebut their claims. The document produced at Cairo is not a treaty and is not binding. The Cairo document states explicitly that it created no new rights, so no "right to abortion" can be found there. Terms like "reproductive rights" and "reproductive health" are indeed mentioned, but their definitions do not include abortion. In two places the document states that in "no case should abortion be used as a method of family planning," and, most importantly, it acknowledges explicitly the sovereign right of states to legislate on the subject: "Any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national and local level according to the national legislative process."
Does this mean that pro-lifers should be unconcerned about the United States signing the Disabilities Treaty, and the planned efforts to make it binding on us by ratifying it?
No, pro-lifers should be concerned with Disabilities as with any treaty, because even though the Disabilities Convention does not create a right to abortion, it does create a committee to monitor compliance with its terms. UN compliance committees are often staffed with radicals who favor abortion, and, in their non-binding advisory recommendations, will hector countries about changing their laws protecting life. They will claim that where the Disabilities treaty refers to "sexual and reproductive health," it is referring to abortion, though this was emphatically not what countries intended to do when they negotiated, signed and ratified the treaty.
Members of compliance committees should not be reinterpreting the meaning of words to claim "reproductive health" means abortion when that was not the intention. This holds equally true for pro-lifers, who should be the last people to want to aid and abet the strategy of the other side by repeating their false claims.
Austin Ruse is president and Piero Tozzi is Executive Vice-President/General Counsel of C-FAM (Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute), a research institute dedicated to international social policy at the UN and the EU.