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May 2002
Volume XI
Number 5

  Reproductive Freedom News


Bush Administration Undermining Reproductive Rights at UN

The Bush Administration is working to undermine recognition of reproductive rights in international agreements brokered at the United Nations, particularly adolescents' rights.
Campaign: Weaken consensus on young people's reproductive rights

Opposing Rights

On April 1, U.S. Ambassador Sichan Siv stated at a meeting of the UN Commission on Population and Development, "the United States does not accept the use of the term 'reproductive health services' because the term can be interpreted to include promoting the legalization or expansion of legal abortion services."

He added, "Abstinence and postponement of initial sexual activity play important roles in the promotion of adolescent health and well-being ... Age-appropriate messages encouraging abstinence for young people are key to HIV/AIDS and pregnancy prevention programs for youth around the world."

These statements are in stark contrast to conclusions made in a UN Secretary General's report to the UN Commission on Population and Development. The report states, "For many adolescents, sexual initiation occurs before they receive adequate information on potential health risks, the skills of self-protection and full access to reproductive health services."

Photo By: United Nations

Ambassador Siv's statement foreshadows the ideological line the Bush Administration intends to draw, and has drawn, in negotiations on adolescents' reproductive rights at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children (Children's Summit) to be held in New York from May 8 to 10. By opposing language reaffirming reproductive health and rights in the agreement drafted at the Children's Summit, the Bush Administration can build on its efforts to undermine reproductive rights advocacy abroad, in a fashion similar to the "global gag rule's" effect on abortion reform. The "gag rule" forbids foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. family planning funds from using their own, non-U.S. funds to provide legal abortion services, lobby their own governments for abortion law reform, or even provide accurate medical counseling or referrals regarding abortion.

Last June, during negotiations on the Children's Summit agreement, U.S. negotiators opposed language affirming that women and adolescent girls have the right "to full access to affordable, quality reproductive health care, as agreed at the International Conference on Population and Development [held in Cairo in 1994] and the Fourth World Conference on Women [held in Beijing in 1995], and reaffirmed at their five-year reviews."

Who shares the Bush Administration's view? For starters, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and the Vatican are all in the camp opposing any efforts to protect adolescents' reproductive health and rights. Excluding the Vatican, the U.S. State Department has consistently identified these nations as having oppressed their citizens' human rights.

The U.S. position is unlikely to change as the Bush Administration's delegation for the Children's Summit is composed of a cast of characters staunchly opposed to reproductive rights. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, known domestically for his support of unconstitutional bans on so-called "partial-birth abortion" and abstinence-only education, is slated to lead the U.S. delegation. Others delegates may include John Klink, the former Holy See ambassador to the UN and Bill Saunders, Human Rights Counsel at the anti-choice group the Family Research Council.

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy has been working hard to shed light on the tactics of the Bush Administration. In the run-up to the Children's Summit, CRLP legal advisors and legal fellows have been lobbying delegates throughout the negotiation sessions. In addition, CRLP has sought to influence the U.S. position by sending letters, signed by 51 non-governmental organizations, to Secretary Thompson and Secretary of State Colin Powell to point out the dangers of undermining adolescent's reproductive rights at the conference. CRLP and other reproductive rights groups briefed members of Congress about the Bush Administration's anti-reproductive rights agenda at the Children's Summit.

Why does all this matter? At stake is the worldwide consensus on reproductive rights shaped during the past decade at international conferences in Cairo and Beijing. If UN member states agree at the Children's Summit to a document that includes language restricting reproductive rights, then the progress made so far in expanding and protecting reproductive rights will be significantly undermined.                             Photo; By: United Nations

Reproductive rights advocates fear the Children's Summit could end with an agreement that restricts adolescents' access to information on contraception and protection from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmissible infections. These advocates also believe that language being proposed, particularly on parent's control of the reproductive rights of adolescents, could reopen the door to arguments of cultural relativity and could be construed to condone practices such female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FC/FGM),a practice that has been criminalized in the United States.

During the Children's Summit, CRLP legal advisors and fellows will follow the negotiations and will propose progressive reproductive rights language to delegates. In addition, CRLP will launch a report, "State of Denial: Adolescent Reproductive Rights in Zimbabwe," on May 8. The report illustrates how a government's denial of adolescents' access to contraceptive information and services can leave adolescent boys and girls dangerously unprepared to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortion, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmissible infections.

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