Sexual and Reproductive Health Roils UN Conference on the Disabled
By Susan Yoshihara PhD
(NEW YORK — C-FAM) The government of Nicaragua led a charge of 23 nations at UN headquarters this week objecting to the inclusion of “sexual and reproductive health services” in what will become a treaty on the rights of the disabled. Nicaragua’s UN Ambassador objected to the phrase because he said it was vague and undefined. He also called the phrase too controversial to include in the document.
Negotiators are meeting in New York for what they hope will be the final two weeks of a multi-year negotiation that will lead to a hard-law treaty protecting the rights of the disabled. Following Nicaragua’s objection was a wide range of governments including United States, Honduras, Egypt, Costa Rica, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Tunisia, Qatar, Kenya, and the Philippines. In a move that surprised everyone in the room even usually liberal Norway joined in the objection to including “sexual and reproductive health services” into the document.
The controversial nature of the phrase is that though the UN has never defined the phrase, it has been used by radical non-governmental organizations and by some UN committees to get governments to legalize abortion. “Reproductive health” has only ever been defined once as including abortion and that was in the non-binding document produced by the Cairo Conference on Population and Development. It has never been defined in a hard-law treaty which would be binding on nations that ratify.
Despite the overwhelming opposition, the committee chair, Ambassador Donald McKay of New Zealand, insisted that nations continue to negotiate the matter. Peter Smith, UN representative of the London based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children remarked “even the chairman seems to be negotiating.” Traditionally in UN meetings if even a few countries object to certain language it is removed since the UN works by consensus. It was clear as the afternoon progressed that the chairman wanted to retain the controversial language even though so many countries objected. At one point he was even admonished by the Egyptian delegate for not remaining impartial.
A number of governments spoke in favor of the language, including the European Union, Canada, Peru, Cuba, and Brazil.
Another surprising development at this negotiation was the active participation of non-governmental organizations in the actual governmental negotiation. Traditionally, NGOs are allowed into the room and are allowed to press their case with delegates between sessions. In this meeting, however, the chairman is allowing NGOs to speak during negotiations on the specific paragraph being negotiated, just like governments.
The other controversial language the negotiators have to decide by the end of next week is whether the disabled have to the right to “experience their sexuality.” Though one knows what this phrase really means, it is being supported by the European Union and other liberal governments. In negotiations Thursday afternoon, 21 countries objected to this phrase.
It is likely that the debate on these phrases will continue into next week and will likely not be decided until the wee hours on the final day.