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Luis Benavides/AP

Stealth treaty

United Nations | An international treaty used to change abortion laws around the world could soon find its way into more U.S. adjudications

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

In Saudi Arabia, women may not vote, drive a car, or travel by themselves. In Afghanistan, women set themselves on fire to escape forced marriages. In China, pregnant women have no choice but to abort their babies and sterilize their wombs.

Yet all three countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty that promises women "the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men."

But the promises of CEDAW ring hollow: "Where it's really needed, it has not been effective. Where it's been harmful to women, it has been effective, as in overturning pro-life laws," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. One area of effectiveness, say pro-life activists like Wright, has been to twist the treaty's original purpose to compel support for abortion worldwide.

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Although Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1980 and advocates in the U.S. Senate have twice tried to muster a two-thirds vote for ratification, the United States is one of eight countries that have not ratified CEDAW. That may change. March 8 is International Women's Day, it's election season, and pro-lifers are expecting a Democratic Congress to start pushing CEDAW soon.

When the UN adopted CEDAW in 1979, most countries still criminalized abortion. Some of the 185 states to ratify the treaty still do. The word "abortion" never appears in CEDAW's text. The text does not even mention reproductive health-just access to health services, including family planning-and the State Department has pronounced the treaty "abortion neutral."

But the treaty's text matters less than its interpretation as a living document. Experts in countries that implement CEDAW have reinterpreted the treaty to include abortion rights. The CEDAW committee-23 elected experts who create "General Recommendations" to guide interpretation of the treaty-in 1999 issued General Recommendation 24 declaring access to reproductive health care a basic right. They called it discriminatory to "criminalize medical procedures only needed by women." It recommends that countries amend abortion legislation "to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion."

The committee has no enforcement power and the recommendation isn't legally binding, but Susan Yoshihara, executive vice president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), said, "It does tell you the mind of this committee, how they perceive it."

Wright said pro-lifers aren't just speculating that the committee will use the treaty to support abortion: "They've used it that way." Thomas W. Jacobson, Focus on the Family's representative to the United Nations, found that since 1995, the CEDAW committee has pressured 58 nations to legalize or increase access to abortion. Each country that ratifies the treaty must give the committee regular updates on its progress implementing CEDAW. In countries where abortion is illegal, the committee expresses concern about "clandestine abortions" and "maternal mortality rates," recommending that nations remove "punitive provisions" and decriminalize abortion to make it safer.

In countries where abortion is already legal, the committee presses to liberalize abortion laws by increasing access to RU-486, providing social security coverage, doing away with spousal consent, and expanding abortion services to rural areas. In 2007 alone, the committee pressured seven countries-Belize, India, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Sierra Leone-to liberalize their abortion laws.

Some countries act on those recommendations. In May 2006, Colombia's constitutional court overturned its pro-life laws and cited CEDAW in its ruling: Abortion laws compromise "women's right to gender equality in the area of health" and violate "international obligations to respect those internationally recognized rights." In a Women's Link Worldwide video celebrating the victory, attorney Mónica Roa said her challenge sought "to create consistency between international human rights law and national law."

Since abortion is already legal in the United States and U.S. law trumps international law, CEDAW supporters dismiss concerns that CEDAW would affect abortion law. Pro-lifers say CEDAW still has the potential to shape the abortion debate. Wright said legislators would use CEDAW to attack restrictions on partial-birth abortion and parental consent requirements: "They could take their cue from the CEDAW committee or conveniently rely on the CEDAW committee rulings as if they were authoritative."

Austin Ruse, president of C-FAM, said the same would happen with the Supreme Court: "When Roe v. Wade is reheard by the Supreme Court, CEDAW will be mentioned by the majority upholding Roe or by the minority that dissent from Roe being overturned. It is a guarantee that CEDAW will play a part . . . because the claim of the other side is that CEDAW requires governments to change their laws to have liberal abortion laws."

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