Last week marked week two of the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations in New York. This year’s CSW was particularly significant because it marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing, 1995). At the conference in 1995, advocates attempted to establish a “right” to abortion on demand, but were defeated when governments declared that no “right” to abortion was to be established at Beijing.
In addition to the many delegates at the United Nations last week, the halls were filled with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and individuals from all over the world there to persuade delegates to implement resolutions that contained language agreeable to their particular ideologies. In particular, pro-choice and pro-life groups were in a tug-of-war striving to convince delegates of their respective positions.
As a part of a pro-life, pro-family coalition working at the UN, we met with delegates to communicate the importance of inserting language into proposed resolutions that fully protects and promotes the dignity and rights of women. Many on the pro-choice side advocate that “safe abortion” and access to greater family planning programs will improve women’s overall health. They refuse to admit what the statistics show: abortion, regardless of its legality, impacts a woman’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being in devastating ways. Society and the work place must adapt to support women, and never adapt women to the work place. Affirming women’s dignity, including their fertility and unique ability to bear children, is fundamental to improving the lives of women.
Several countries’ delegates spoke Monday during the Commission’s general plenary session, including the delegate from the Holy See. (The Holy See is the juridical personality of the Catholic Church recognized under international law.) The Holy See stated that as this Commission undertakes a 15-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Commission should critically assess the strategies of the past fifteen years and consider whether the Commission’s goals are being successfully attained.
From the successive interventions over the week in the general debate, the assessment was not entirely positive. “It includes some light, but also many and disturbing shadows,” the Holy See delegate stated.
There have been some advances — better educational options for girls and stronger laws against domestic violence — over the past fifteen years. However, the reality remains that women continue to suffer in many parts of the world and their inherent dignity is daily violated.
The Holy See challenged the Commission to look at the “principles, priorities, and action policies in force in international organizations, namely, that system of motivations, values, guidelines, and methodologies that guide the UN’s work on women’s issues.” The UN’s strategies have lacked the effectiveness originally desired. The Holy See and other pro-life nations suggested that this is because every document of international Conferences and Committees, including many Resolutions, links the achievement of personal, social, economic, and political rights to a notion of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
This approach, however, is “violent to unborn human life and is detrimental to the integral needs of women within society.” Women’s political, economic, and social rights must receive greater attention to advance and attain the goal of respecting women’s dignity and their rights.
The fact that emphasis has been placed so heavily on sexual and reproductive health, especially in countries where even basic health care is inadequate, is distressing. Widespread maternal mortality is a serious problem, suffered particularly by women in third world countries. In speaking with various delegates, we emphasized that expanding reproductive health and greater access to abortion fails to adequately address the problem of maternal mortality. In fact, countries with the greatest restrictions on abortion have the lowest maternal mortality rates.
Solutions to maternal mortality ought to include greater access to basic healthcare and nutrition, clean water and sanitations, proper prenatal care during pregnancy, and skilled birth attendants and postpartum care. Combating these issues will be far more effective in promoting women’s dignity than the proven failure of providing greater access to “safe” abortion and family planning services.
A solution that respects the dignity of the woman also does not allow us to bypass the right to motherhood, as advocates of reproductive justice and greater access to abortion suggest. Theresa Okafor, Director of the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage (FACH), spoke on recognizing the critical role of mothers in society: “Motherhood is a gift which is not penalized but celebrated and rewarded [in Africa] because humanity owes its survival to that gift.” Promoting women’s dignity requires a respect and appreciation for motherhood. To this end, we must support motherhood by investing in and improving local health systems.
In conclusion, a goal of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action was to ensure “that women’s human rights are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal rights.” As lobbyists last week at the United Nations, we strongly encouraged countries’ delegates to make proactive steps forward. New strategies that affirm the inherent dignity of women and protect their basic rights must be considered and implemented with new resolve to improve the condition of women worldwide.