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Is the UN Women’s Agenda Riding Roughshod over Religion?

Frances Kissling

6 September 1999

Symposium with Diane Sabom and Frances Kissling

Q: Is the U.N. women’s agenda riding roughshod over religion?

Diane Sabom
Sabom is an independent writer specializing in women’s issues and politics and represents a nongovernmental organization at the United Nations.

Yes: Newly minted women’s rights are squeezing freedom of religion and conscience.

For years lawyers and feminist policy wonks at the United Nations have been writing and amending various manifestos of womens’ rights. This womens’ agenda goes far beyond merely pressuring Third World nations to stop sanctioning sexual slavery and female genital mutilation. Indeed, high on the target list of the feminist globocrats these days are the orthodox texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and any government that seeks to defend them.

The booklet Forum ‘98, which was handed out at a U.S. briefing at the United Nations on March 17, suggests that fundamentalist religions in the United States would not escape such targeting. The contemporary statement of U.S. feminists proposes that, to shape a better world in the 21st century, "We must [e]nd the use of religion to subjugate and control women." In addition, Local Action, Global Change, published this year by the U.N. Development Fund for Women and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, reports, "The fundamentalist movement is a universal phenomenon. It operates under different religious slogans, but it is a political movement using God to justify injustices and discrimination."

U.N. documents now provide blueprints to resolve conflict against religion in favor of womens’ rights. For instance, two 1993 declarations contain similar provisions urging countries to combat violence against women by eradicating "the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural prejudices and religious extremism." The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action warns that "religious extremism is incompatible with the dignity and the worth of the human person and must be combated and eliminated." And what counts at the United Nations as religious extremism? That would be not merely the Taliban regime of Afghanistan but any person who challenges, on religious grounds, the proliferation of women’s rights.

For example, three new "rights" being created by U.N. social planners include a right to a safe (legal) abortion, a right to homosexual behavior and a right to parent-free access to reproductive services for adolescents. The first of these challenges what many religions believe to be the most fundamental right: the right to life. The U.N. feminists, along with officials of the World Health Organization, frequently cite numbers of maternal deaths due to botched abortions in countries where the practice is illegal. The fact of the matter is, however, that unless the health care in developing countries improves, legalizing abortion actually could raise their maternal-mortality rates.

The feminist struggle to make homosexual behavior a human right is based on the claim that autonomous decision-making regarding the body is necessary to health and that such decisions must be free of discrimination. In a 1994 opinion, Toonen vs. Tasmania, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found that Tasmania’s law prohibiting homosexual behavior violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and advised its repeal. If such a right is established, will ministers and priests who preach that homosexuality is a sin become human-rights violators? The establishing of such a right surely would accelerate pressure for the legalization of related rights such as same-sex marriage.

Many U.N. activists also are proclaiming what amounts to a right to parent-free access to reproductive services for adolescents. At a U.N. meeting called to draft a document for the U.N. General Assembly’s five-year review of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, or ICPD, the U.S. delegation on March 31 insisted that the word "girls" be added to the text to read: "Governments should ensure that the human rights of women and girls includ[e] . . . reproductive rights." Since reproductive rights denote the right of self-determination, this right for adolescents pits them against their parents’ right to ensure the education of their children according to their own convictions as safeguarded in the 1994 Cairo Programme of Action and elsewhere. This issue failed to win agreement and erupted again in June as one nation after another took the floor to protest against wording which they claimed violated their religious freedom and national sovereignty.

As "women’s rights" are being considered at U.N. meetings, conservative religious ideas often are ridiculed openly. For example, the representative of the Holy See (the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican City) was mocked on March 11 for suggesting that the phrase "abstinence before marriage" be included in a text. Peter Smith of International Right to Life in the United Kingdom was hissed at in February at a forum sponsored by the U.N. Population Fund, or UNFPA, in The Hague for reading from the book of Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply." Afterward Smith commented: "Even people who are fighting bitter wars discuss things civilly at the United Nations. But this type of behavior threatens to undermine the whole system. No one was called to order; therefore, it could easily become accepted practice for certain religious views to be held up to ridicule."

Moreover, the process itself increasingly has become one-sided. For example, only four of the 720 or so nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, accredited to attend the February forum in The Hague represented pro-life views, as opposed to 80 affiliates of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Marianne Haslegrave, a conference organizer, admitted to two pro-life supporters that a quota had restricted their numbers.

Scores of feminists and youths protested on March 30 in New York outside the U.N. conference room of the Working Group on Population and Development. A chain of placard-carrying activists sought to intimidate the Holy See and six nations of the G-77, a bloc of developing countries. The Holy See, Argentina, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nicaragua and Sudan were being blamed, among other things, for holding up progress by their insistence on the rights of parents to determine the moral upbringing of their children.

On the other hand, politically correct religious activists such as Catholics for a Free Choice, or CFFC—which claims to be "the voice of Catholics worldwide who hold progressive views on women, reproduction and sexuality"—are given extraordinary exposure by the United Nations. CFFC President Frances Kissling was a headline speaker at a UNFPA meeting in Bangladesh in July 1998, and the organization’s views were presented on various U.N. platforms during February and March. Kissling is leading a postcard campaign, supported by at least 70 NGOs, including Planned Parenthood, to downgrade the Holy See from permanent nonmember state observer to an NGO. The Holy See currently is allowed to voice opinions and to vote on policy recommendations alongside governments at major conferences—a privilege it would lose as an NGO.

After four years, the Commission on the Status of Women succeeded in March in pushing through an Optional Protocol for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW. Once countries sign on to the treaty and the protocol, individual women will have the right to bring complaints against their own governments for violations of the convention. CEDAW, which the United States has not ratified, mandates the rewriting of offending religious and cultural practices of its signatory nations. Article 5, for instance, requires the modification of cultural patterns of conduct in the name of women’s equality.

For example, the CEDAW committee in January wrote to Algeria of its concern over "the constant citing of religious principles ... to justify why women’s status has not kept up with the overall advances of society." The report recommends "an evolutional approach that would allow for a dynamic interpretation and reading of religious texts." In another recent report, the CEDAW committee not only informed the Libyan delegation that "the interpretation of the Koran had to be reviewed in the light of the provisions of the Convention," but also instructed Libya, a sovereign nation, to find interpretations that were "permissible and did not block the advancement of women."

Similarly, the committee expressed "particular concern with regard to the limited availability of abortion services for women in southern Italy, as a result of the high incidence of conscientious objection among doctors and hospital personnel." In February the committee charged the government of Colombia with discrimination against women because it denied them abortion services, and a 1999 report advised the government of Kyrgyzstan to reconceptualize lesbianism as a sexual orientation in order to abolish penalties for the practice.

President Clinton’s December 1998 signing of Executive Order 13107 helped the CEDAW project and other conventions by setting up an Interagency Working Group to pursue the ratification of human-rights treaties. The executive order also will collect alleged human-rights violations attributed to the U.S. government which occur from treaties that the United States already has ratified. Moreover, the executive order will ensure that U.S. legislation conforms with international human-rights obligations.

Though legally nonbinding, article 12 of the December 1998 U.N. Human Rights Defenders Declaration, which is aimed at individual human-rights violators, orders that the government shall take all measures to protect against, among other things, "pressure" in the exercise of rights. According to a September 1996 Planned Parenthood Perspectives’ footnote, "[F]orced pregnancy occurs when abortion following rape is legally denied, practically obstructed or unacceptable to women themselves on religious or cultural grounds." This text implies that women are victims of coercion even if they themselves rule out abortion on moral grounds.

Should the International Criminal Court, or ICC, be ratified by 60 countries, legal analysts worry that it may give new teeth to the prosecution of human-rights violators despite constitutional protections. The ICC is designed to assume universal jurisdiction over all persons in all countries according to a specified list of core crimes, whether or not a country signs on to the treaty. The proposed statute allows for an independent prosecutor to investigate the complaints of special-interest groups (for example, Planned Parenthood) who may, at the same time, influence the final outcomes of the court’s decisions by contributing toward the funding of the court.

The most decisive issue in this discussion is the extent to which new "women’s rights" can be enforced. Make no mistake: The constant repetition of new "rights" is the premeditated attempt to establish customary international law for exactly the purpose of enforcing them. The subtext of the mantra that women’s rights are human rights is to place these rights on a par with the universally recognized rights guaranteed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Rights. As the camel comes into the tent, something else will have to exit to make room for him.

Frances Kissling
Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice and is a prominent participant in U.N. conferences on the environment, population and development.

No: The agenda aligns with the teachings of most world religions regarding women.

The pluralism and democracy of the U.N. agenda uplifts the central role religions have given to personal conscience in moral decision-making. Moreover, the United Nations—and other multinational bodies such as the World Bank—increasingly have welcomed both religious and women’s groups to the policy table, not simply to say grace or serve the food but as serious participants in decision-making.

"In the United Nations, the women’s movement has a staunch ally," wrote then secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the introduction to the Platform of Action developed at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, adding, "Starting from the assertion in the Charter calling for the full equality of men and women, the United Nations has worked with the women’s movement to realize this goal of our founders. The movement for gender equality the world over has been one of the defining developments of our time. I am proud and honored that the United Nations has been part of this movement."

Such fine words in no way contradict religious doctrine. They mirror, for example, the teachings of Jesus, reflected in Paul’s letters to the Galatians. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." And it is further confirmed by Pope John Paul II, who has noted that the Bible "provides sufficient bases for recognizing the essential equality of man and woman." In the Koran, the definition of a righteous servant of God is the same for men and women: "And the believers, both men and women, are close to one another; they enjoy in the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong."

Most of the world’s religions have opened ministry and ordination to women. Women, especially religious advocates for women’s rights, have become rabbis, pastors and priests in significant numbers, because they believe religion promotes—not limits—women’s equality

Even on the most controversial women’s-rights issues addressed by the United Nations—the right of couples to determine the size of their families—we find religious support for that right. In fact, religious history points followers in the direction of a small family. "Almost all the influential figures in the world’s religions had small families," observed McGill University’s Arvind Sharma at the 1999 Hague Forum, which sought to evaluate progress in achieving the goals of the U.N. Conference on Population and Development. "Rama, the popular God of Hinduism, had two sons; the Buddha had one son; Mahavira, the last prophet of Jainism, had one daughter (if that); Confucius had one son; Laotzu, the founder of Taoism, none. Abraham had two sons and two daughters; Moses had two sons; Jesus none. The prophet Mohammed was survived by a daughter."

Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and most of Judaism and Christianity see responsible parenthood in marriage, including the use of contraception, as a moral good. Highly respected religious leaders, including two Nobel laureates, have opened the door to admit abortion in some circumstances. Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu supported the South African constitutional provision legalizing abortion. And the Dalai Lama, while generally opposed to abortion, said in a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, "I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to the circumstances." Indeed, in mainline Christianity, fairly widespread support exists for population control (not a women’s-rights issue) and for family planning and even abortion, as necessary, to save the planet.

Complementing Boutros-Ghali’s openness to women has been U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s welcome to religions. Annan addressed the second annual interfaith celebration of commitment to the work of the United Nations in September 1998. "This service is one of the newest traditions on the U.N. calendar, but already it has made an impact," he said. "We see again the power of prayer."

So, with all this evidence of a remarkable convergence of women’s rights and religious contribution at the United Nations, who’s stirring the pot? Who is claiming that religion is unwelcome at the United Nations and that women’s rights (and reproductive rights) as advocated at the United Nations are incompatible with religion?

Is anyone surprised that the main culprit is the religion that is most welcomed by the United Nations but least in favor of women’s reproductive rights? Yes, it is the Roman Catholic Church, which alone among religions is recognized as a state by the United Nations and attends U.N. conferences as a state with full voice and voting privileges. Is it any surprise that the other culprits are the socially conservative, antifeminist, antiabortion groups in the United States that most often whine about being excluded? They complain even while the U.N. bureaucracy bends over backward to accredit them in large numbers to U.N. conferences, give them rooms for workshops and even allow them to address the General Assembly. Their claim that the United Nations ignores religious views stems from the fact that for these groups any religious voice that differs from theirs is not religious.

Controversy, of course, has the power to capture the attention and interest of the media, as well as that of partisans in the ongoing battle between conservatives and progressives. The U.N. Conference on the Environment, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, exposed tension and controversy between and among the Vatican, women’s-rights advocates and the U.N. environmental establishment. Both women’s-rights groups and the Roman Catholic Church strongly objected to claims that rapid population growth was a principal factor in environmental degradation and efforts to control population growth were a solution to environmental problems.

The news media made hay with the "feminists are in bed with the Vatican" story. What was ignored in this admittedly strange-bedfellows scenario was the profound difference in the values that led the Vatican and feminists to their positions against population control. For the Vatican, opposition to contraception and abortion fueled their stance. Feminists—North and South—were concerned that once again women who, after all, make the world’s babies, would be blamed for the world’s problems.

And what never has been acknowledged by the Vatican and its conservative allies is that just about everyone from feminists to family planners has moved on from advocating population control (if they ever did). The consensus among participants at U.N. meetings is that coercion against women is out. China has no business forcing abortions on women and the Vatican has no business forcing women to continue pregnancies they find unendurable—even life- and health-threatening.

The fact is that just about everyone at the United Nations disagrees with Vatican views on reproduction. Among governments, the Vatican could count only the least democratic countries as its allies—in all of Latin America only Argentina, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It surely must have stung the Vatican delegates to hear Catholic Mexico speak out for sexuality education and access to confidential family-planning services and information for adolescents. What a blow it must have been to have Brazil introduce what most considered a highly moderate proposal on abortion, calling not for legalization but simply for the end to criminal penalties for women who have abortions. It must have been an embarrassment to be supported again and again by the Sudan and Libya, two states infamous for human-rights violations.

In spite of the conservatives’ fear that the United Nations and women’s-rights advocates only are interested in abortion, the fact remains that the 1994 Cairo document on sustainable development does not call for legal abortion. Instead, the document expresses moral disapproval of abortion. "In no case is abortion to be promoted as a method of family planning," it reads. "Every attempt should be made to eliminate the need for abortion." Of course, the most effective way to prevent abortion is to encourage the use of contraception, —something the loudest religious voice in the United Nations absolutely forbids and the United Nations and women’s-rights advocates actively support.

What about those claims by those opposed to the Cairo agenda that it is only radical American feminists who want reproductive rights? Aren’t women in developing countries more interested in clean water and basic health and nutrition? Surely they want more traditional families, don’t they? What about Vatican claims that the U.N. family-planning program sends contraceptives when people need antibiotics and new wells? The answer is simple. Most women’s-rights activists, whether in Brooklyn or Brazil, say, "We want both." As an argument to eliminate family planning, don’t use the stinginess of Europe, Japan and most of all the United States, whose international aid will not adequately provide for the human needs of the world’s poor. Notice that we don’t see these antiabortion groups and organizations such as the Eagle Forum advocating any foreign aid, whether it’s for clean water, antibiotics or food.

Furthermore, Vatican characterizations of women in developing countries as "communitarians" who have no desire for reproductive health run contrary to poll after poll in which the women of Africa, Asia and Latin America make clear that they want family planning, fewer children and economic development. All go hand in hand.

More than 100 groups in the developing world, many of them women’s-rights advocates, have reacted strongly to the Vatican’s overreaching in the United Nations. They believe that the Vatican, not religion, is riding roughshod on women’s human rights. They have called on Annan to review the Vatican’s status as a permanent observer nonmember state in the United Nations, to consider leveling the playing field among religions by designating the Vatican as a nongovernmental organization like all other religions. Perhaps then we will realize that the Vatican does not have a lock on moral vision. Perhaps then we will listen to the voices of all the world’s religions, not just one.

This article appeared in the 6 September 1999 edition of Insight on the News.