A change in the White House means the United States will take new positions on matters of international law -- and that likely spells trouble for supporters of traditional moral values at the United Nations.
President-elect Barack Obama supports legal abortion and international "family planning" initiatives that include global access to contraception and abortion. Most observers believe one of his first acts as president will be to unfreeze U.S. funding for the international family planning programs through the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and other organizations. His selection of pro-abortion Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who as first lady advocated abortion access as a fundamental human right at U.N. conferences in the mid-1990s, as U.S. secretary of state, also signals a troubling turn in U.S. foreign policy.
A coalition of abortion advocacy groups has recommended that Obama designate $1 billion for international family planning programs and increase UNFPA funds by $65 million.
"The U.N. is always a problem on life and family issues," said Austin Ruse, president of Catholic Family and Civil Rights Institute (C-FAM). With the incoming Obama administration, the United States "will likely ratify a bunch of U.N. treaties," and backers of abortion and population control "will step up their efforts to make abortion a universally recognized human right."
The latest global assault on family values came Dec. 18, when three competing nonbinding declarations were presented to the U.N. General Assembly. A French-sponsored Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, backed by some 65 countries, including all 27 member nations of the European Union (EU), called for a worldwide ban on discrimination and criminal penalties based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity."
In response, a declaration with nearly as many signatory nations opposed the French declaration, decrying discrimination against all groups and individuals but defending the right of the state to establish and enforce laws that meet "just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare."
The Vatican, in its own statement the same day, echoed the counter-declaration.
"Despite the declaration's rightful condemnation of and protection from all forms of violence against homosexual persons, the document, when considered in its entirety, goes beyond that goal and instead gives rise to uncertainty in the law and challenges existing human rights norms," said the statement issued by the office of Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's apostolic nuncio to the United Nations.
An explanatory note published in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, spelled out the Church's concern that the language of the document could be used to justify legal recognition of same-sex marriage and adoption by homosexual couples and could limit the right of the Church and other religious groups to teach that homosexual acts are morally unacceptable.
Ruse said the statement calls for nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to be "read into" all U.N. human rights treaties but without being negotiated by the full United Nations. "They're trying to do something brand new and highly controversial," he said.
"Proponents say it's all about not wanting to put homosexuals to death," as can happen in some countries where homosexuality is a crime, he told Our Sunday Visitor. "That is their spin in public. So, rhetorically, the Holy See is really taking it in the chops because of this idea of putting homosexuals to death. But that's not why they're opposing it, and the other side knows that."
A problematic ideology
Helen Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University, was the spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops on pro-life issues at the time of two key U.N. conferences -- the 1994 U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing. In both instances, the Holy See, although supporting many of the proposed recommendations of each conference, formed coalitions with Muslim states and other nations that successfully blocked problematic language enshrining global abortion rights and aggressive population-control methods.
"It was the Holy See aligned with some other countries who managed to put a stop to what the United States and Europe were promoting at that time, a post-Christian dualistic view of the human person" in which "the body can be manipulated without ethical constraints," Alvare told OSV. In this view, "your intentions matter, but what you do with your bodies does not" -- a perspective that sees abortion, contraception, sterilization and population control as acceptable even as part of "a tool by which governments can manage their economies," she said.
This gender ideology also collapses male-female distinctions in favor of a "continuum" between the masculine and feminine, with obvious implications for same-sex and nonmarital sexual relationships. Today, "if you look at the family law of Europe, it has consolidated behind that ideology," Alvare noted.
Rough road ahead
Ruse predicts the next few years will bring a global conference on maternal health and violence against women, along with Cairo+15 and Beijing+15 conferences. He sees an international treaty allowing human cloning of embryos for medical experimentation, which he fears will pass. He hopes the Muslim nations will "come home" to the pro-life and pro-family coalition "now that it's the Obama administration coming in and getting very muscular on these issues." But, he added, "it's the U.N., and its negotiations are as complicated as a Rubik's Cube."
Unfortunately, the pro-abortion, anti-family-values forces have public apathy and ignorance on their side.
"Most people don't really pay attention to the United Nations, certainly not to the social-policy debate there," said Ruse. "What this means is that the Obama administration can be totally true to itself on issues like abortion. They will be more pro-abortion at the U.N. than they will anyplace else because nobody's watching."
Alvare agreed that the Holy See and its allies have a big fight ahead. In the years since the pro-life, pro-family victories at the Cairo and Beijing conferences, evidence for the success of such policies in developing nations has mounted, she said.
However, "the ideology for abortion, for a massive birth-control handout, for depopulation as a strategy for development has become stronger, too," said Alvare. "How this battle will be waged will be fascinating. I know the Holy See will do it brilliantly, but it's going to be very rough."
The Friday Fax
The Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute has a way that Catholics can keep track of the happenings at the United Nations. Its Friday Fax news article, issued weekly, reports on U.N. meetings and conferences, and analyzes U.N. documents. For information, including how to subscribe to the Friday Fax, visit www.c-fam.org.
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.