International Policy/United Nations

Debate Intensifies over Women's Right to Choose

Friday, June 9, 2000

Women leaders issue statement calling for the U.N. to stand by its prior commitment to women's rights. Advocates worry that conservative governments will sway delegates to approve a document that will roll back women's reproductive rights.

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NEW YORK-- Hundreds of women here for the United Nations Special Session signed on to a statement calling upon the U.N.'s General Assembly to stand behind prior commitments to women's rights. The action is in response to observer and participant reports that conservative governments are pressing for a watered-down document that could jeopardize women's reproductive freedoms.

"We are very concerned that there has definitely been a trend throughout this process to diminish the recognition of the human rights of women as a fundamental part of the Beijing Platform," said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership.

Indicating the advances women's reproductive freedom has made during the past years, the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy released a report yesterday that documented substantial gains.

Currently 50 countries, containing 41 percent of the world's population, have laws that permit abortion without restriction as to reason. Five countries--Albania, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Guyana and South Africa--enacted legislation liberalizing abortion, while two countries--El Salvador and Poland--further restricted abortion laws. In addition, contraceptive access was made available in Japan and Ethiopia, and several countries, including Brazil, France, Canada, and Great Britain, have opened doors to the use of emergency contraception.

Regardless of these statistics, many of the representatives of the non-governmental organizations attending Beijing + Five believe that a small number of governments are intent on diluting the U.N.'s commitment to health care, including family planning, that women obtained at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

"Even the term 'reproductive rights' is in contention," said Kathy Hall Martinez, deputy director of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York, which, like hundreds of women's organizations from around the world, is monitoring the proceedings. Even though reproductive rights are about a full range of women's choices in reproductive health care decisions, "conservative governments say that it only refers to abortion and emergency contraception, and they don't like that," claims Martinez.

With the presence of so many powerful women from around the world, Martinez said she believes that the U.N. would see the wisdom in moving forward and rejecting extremist minority views. Several women's activists complained that progressive nations are falling silent in the face of clear efforts to throw back the process. Others warned that the well-financed anti-choice groups are likely to be "a permanent feature of the landscape."

The observers believe that obstructions to reproductive rights are being mounted by a handful of conservative representatives, including the Holy See (the Vatican), Libya, Pakistan, Algeria, Sudan, and Iran.

In fact, Monday, F.R. Richard Welsh, the president of Human Life International, based in Virginia, issued a press release congratulating these countries for attempting to derail choice internationally. They "are making it more difficult for the radical feminists to carry out their brand of anti-family imperialism," the release said. The organization says it condemns pro-homosexual, pro-abortion, pro-family-planning imperialism all over the world.

Adding to the alarm of pro-choice advocates, a U.S. based pro-choice organization issued Tuesday a report that indicated that Human Life International is part of a group of U.S.-based, anti-choice organizations that have established international links as well during the past five years.

This strategic reconfiguration of international outreach is "the most dramatic development in the global fight for reproductive rights and gender equity in recent years," said the report produced by The Institute for Democracy Studies.

During the press conference accompanying the release of the report, the president of the institute, Alfred Ross, claimed that international anti-choice efforts rely upon the leadership of the Human Life International, along with the Vatican, the Mormon church and Gary Bauer's Family Research Council.

They have reached out to other religious fundamentalists, including Islamic groups, to build a new international force called the World Congress of Families, Ross added.

Observers say that other major trouble spots at the conference having to do with human sexuality include sexual orientation, definitions of family that could include single mothers, unmarried couples or gays and lesbians. Another issue being debated is how much responsibility individual governments should bear for assuring women's equality.

Senator Piedad Cordova of Columbia said that reproductive rights were an enormously important issue in developing nations such as hers. "Reproductive rights are highly linked to economic rights . . . and to the whole issue of health," she said, through a translator. "Reproductive rights are like human rights--universal, unique and individual."

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