Late last week, United States (US) Ambassador to the Untied Nations (UN) Susan Rice signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the first binding UN treaty to mention "sexual and reproductive health" – on behalf of the US. While this has prompted concern among certain advocates for the unborn, veteran pro-life UN observers counsel that the term should not be construed to include abortion.
At the time of the treaty’s adoption in 2006, delegates debated including the phrase amid worries among pro-lifers that certain pro-abortion organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights might claim that the term was elastic enough to include abortion.
An official report of the proceedings, however, noted that this phrase was "not intended to alter" policies with regard to "family planning or related matters." The treaty does not affect the pro-life laws of member states that signed or ratified it.
To underscore this point, at least 15 nations made statements in the UN General Assembly at the time interpreting "sexual and reproductive health" as excluding abortion. No nation made a statement contradicting such an interpretation. Two pro-life European nations that signed the document, Poland and Malta, made formal reservations that the term did not include abortion.
The US, in its closing statement, affirmed that the term "cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion."
Certain pro-life critics worry, however, that the US closing statement was made under the Administration of President George W. Bush, and that there has now been a policy change at the White House. They point to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this past April that she interprets the term "reproductive health" as including abortion.
Although such a statement from the Secretary of State indicates a US policy shift, it has no binding juridical status in international law. Abortion advocates often favor repetition of such statements, however, calculating that this will shift popular perceptions towards acceptance of a definition that includes abortion.
Jeanne Head, R.N., UN representative for National Right to Life Committee, noted that the term "reproductive health" has never been defined to include a right to abortion in any negotiated UN document, including the Disability Convention. She told the Friday Fax that abortion advocates "appear to think that if they keep repeating this false interpretation often enough, they can make the world believe it is true."
Following last week’s signing, the treaty now moves to the Senate for its "advice and consent," per the role specified in the US Constitution. If it gains the support of two-thirds of the Senators, it is then presented to the President for ratification. The Bush Administration had refused to sign the treaty, arguing that it could weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In general, the United States has been reluctant to seek ratification of treaties, due to concerns that treaties interfere with principles of federalism and infringe upon the rights of individual states. The Obama Administration has indicated it nevertheless would push for ratification of several treaties, including the Conventions on the Rights of the Child and Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.