BEIJING — Delegates to the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women drafted a controversial provision Sunday calling on governments to review laws that penalize women for having illegal abortions.
The delegates, members of a key subcommittee representing more than 70 countries, also approved a hotly debated measure that defines the right of a woman to make decisions about her own sexual and reproductive health as a basic human right.
Both measures are still subject to review by a final drafting committee representing all 181 national delegations at the conference. But their approval Sunday by the health contact subcommittee was considered by most experts as tantamount to including them in the conference's final "Platform for Action."
Women's health advocacy organizations celebrated the approval of the abortion provision as a significant step toward decriminalizing abortions and preventing clandestine, unsafe ones.
"It is an incremental step forward in really acting on the fact that unsafe abortion is a threat to the health of women," said Sally Ethelston, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Population Action International. "It is especially important for poor women. The poor are the ones who end up suffering most for unsafe abortions."
The draft language, bitterly fought to the end by a handful of countries from the Middle East, Central America and South America, calls on all U.N. member states to "review laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions."
"The point is that it starts to cut through the stigma of abortion," said Joan Dunlop, president of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition. "It is a tool to open public debate around the world."
But after the provision was approved, a delegate from Guatemala spoke out, saying, "I just want you to know that I disagree with the way this has been railroaded."
Perhaps even more controversial was the approval of the other provision, which codifies women's "right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence."
In its original form, the measure was the so-called "sexual rights" provision opposed by the Vatican and some Muslim countries because it included the sexual rights of women outside marriage and, according to some interpretations, opened the door to acceptance of lesbianism and bisexuality.
"We don't like this word \o7 sexuality \f7 because it includes sexual relations," said Dr. Attiat Mustafa Abdelhalim, a female pediatrician who is a delegate from Sudan.
The version of the provision finally approved Sunday does not include the words \o7 sexual rights\f7 , although there was a last-minute effort by the European Union to insert them into the text. The EU representative withdrew the proposed amendment under pressure from subcommittee Chairwoman Merwat Tallawy, Egypt's ambassador to Japan.
When the Platform for Action is adopted Friday, several countries are expected to register reservations about portions of it. The final declaration is not binding on any country, although its drafters hope it carries a "social force" that will influence international behavior.
The rights provision approved Sunday also includes what some participants call the "right to say 'no' clause."
In the approved version it states:
"Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences."
One underlying theme of the provision is a woman's right to protect herself from infection by the AIDS virus. The strongest sponsors of the provision are from South Africa and other African states that have been hit hard by the acquired immune deficiency syndrome pandemic. African women attending the conference have told of instances in which men with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS, have insisted on having unprotected sex.
Most of the language in the Platform for Action is based on a report from last November's International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Delegates came to the Beijing meeting hoping to preserve the gains made in Cairo.
But after Sunday's actions, some contended that the Beijing conference will exceed Cairo on several fronts on reproductive health issues.