Beijing + 10: Washington puts heat on UN over abortion Print E-mail

Washington puts heat on UN over abortion

March 2, 2005

The US Government has insisted a United Nations document on women's equality makes clear that abortion is not a fundamental right and has accused activists of trying to distort the issue.

Even the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in his opening speech to a high-level review session of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, came in for criticism for using the term "sexual rights".

"There is no fundamental right to abortion," said Ellen Sauerbrey, the US delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, running the review.

"And yet it keeps coming up largely driven by NGOs trying to hijack the term and trying to make it into a definition," she told a news conference. She would not name any of the groups.

The UN meeting, with at least 100 government delegations, 80 ministers and about 6000 advocates of women's rights, was reviewing progress since the landmark global conference in Beijing 10 years ago.

Rather than producing a weighty document, the organisers decided to keep controversies in check by writing a short declaration that reaffirms and pledges implementation of the 150-page platform of action agreed in Beijing.

But, to the dismay of European and some Latin American delegates, the US submitted amendments, declaring the Beijing conference did not include the right to abortion.

In Beijing, abortion was treated as a health issue, with the 150-page platform saying it should be safe where it was legal and criminal action should not be taken against women who underwent the procedure.

The Bush Administration does not disagree with this but has instituted a variety of policies to make sure any US foreign assistance is not used for abortions.

Mr Annan, in his address, said governments had to "guarantee sexual and reproductive health and rights", noting that half a million women die of pregnancy-related causes every year.

The Beijing conference called on governments to end discrimination in education, health care, politics, employment, inheritance rights and many other fields. But it broke new ground by stating women, and in many cases girls forced to marry young, had the right to decide how often they would have children "without coercion".

The US has also drafted two resolutions for the conference - on sex trafficking and prostitution, and on empowering women economically, which will refer to property rights, Ms Sauerbrey said.

Women now own about 2 per cent of all land but produce half the food grown, according to UN figures.

In many societies, the right for women to own and inherit property is neglected and in some countries it is forbidden.

More controversial is a draft resolution on trafficking which Ms Sauerbrey said would take small steps towards outlawing prostitution by asking for research into the relationship of sex tourism and luring women and girls into brothels.

UN figures show that 90 per cent of foreign sex workers in the Balkans are victims of trafficking and at least 700,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked each year across international borders.

Girls as young as 13 from Asia and eastern Europe are trafficked as "mail-order brides".

Reuters