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U.N. Affirms Women's Equality as U.S. Retreats on Abortion Issue

Washington withdraws a call for the statement to say explicitly that it did not declare a right to end pregnancy, saying its point was made.

March 05, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The United States on Friday withdrew its demand that a U.N. declaration on women's equality state that it did not guarantee the right to abortion. But the chief American negotiator portrayed the decision as a victory, saying that four days of debate had reinforced Washington's message.

"We think we have really accomplished what we set out to do," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, chief U.S. delegate to a two-week conference of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to review progress toward equality. "We have heard from countries that our interpretation is their interpretation."

With that, the U.S. joined representatives from 130 countries in unanimously adopting a new, one-page declaration reaffirming policy goals enshrined in the 150-page platform for action adopted at a landmark women's conference in Beijing in 1995.

Organizers had hoped to finish negotiations on the document before the conference to allow the 6,000 delegates to focus on challenges that remain for women in improving health and education and gaining economic and political power. But the U.S. delegates refused to join the consensus until it was clarified that the document did not create any new human rights, especially the right to have an abortion.

Sauerbrey said the Bush administration had concerns that a phrase in the Beijing platform endorsing women's access to "reproductive health services" could be interpreted to mean access to abortion.

On the session's first day, Chairwoman Kyung-wha Kang said the 1995 Beijing document was a policy blueprint, not a treaty or convention that created rights. After four days of divisive debate in which no other participant rose to echo its concerns, the U.S. declared that its strategy to bring all countries around to that interpretation had worked.

"We did not come into this session with that understanding," Sauerbrey said. "We are leaving this session with that clear understanding, vocalized by many countries. So, we are very satisfied that we did achieve what we set out to do."

Sauerbrey added an explanation of Washington's position to the official record in a statement that was longer than the conference's one-page declaration.

Other delegations welcomed the U.S. concession, but said the debate consumed valuable time that could have been devoted to other issues.

"We applaud the U.S. decision to join the international consensus and affirm the Beijing platform," said Alexandra Arriaga of Amnesty International. "The commission can now turn its attention to addressing the urgent needs of women around the world."

Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, said the U.S. campaign was "disingenuous from the beginning" because it was clear that the declaration could not create new rights.

"The U.S. concocted a straw man," said Germain, a former U.S. delegate who helped draft the Beijing document. "They wanted to create a situation where they could say that all the other governments agree with them that there is no international right to abortion."

The United States may face more opposition next week during the debate over two resolutions it has proposed. One resolution proposes a global ban on prostitution to help stop trafficking of women and sexual tourism.

"Many governments don't agree with this strategy, because criminalization drives prostitution underground and denies women access to healthcare and protection against violence," Germain said.

The other U.S.-backed resolution urges governments to ensure women's economic rights by amending inheritance laws that favor men, allowing women to own property and offering them small loans. But the proposal has already drawn 10 pages of amendments from countries that object to what they regard as interference with their laws and customs.

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