UN General Assembly Approves Disability Convention


Clear Understanding that the Term “Sexual and Reproductive Health”
Does Not Include a Right to Abortion Reaffirmed.
By Jeanne E. Head, R.N., NRLC UN Representative

Today, December 13, 2006, after four years of negotiations, the UN General Assembly gave final approval to a treaty (Convention) the purpose of which is the protection of the rights and dignity of Persons with Disabilities on an equal basis with others. Its provisions include the right to life, food, water, and health care without discrimination. The treaty Preamble affirms the inherent right to life and the “dignity and worth” of persons with disabilities.

The treaty, which it is hoped will substantially improve the lives of persons with disabilities throughout the world, includes 50 Articles on a wide variety of subjects relating to disability and establishes a committee to monitor compliance to the treaty.

A significant number of countries from every major region in the world except Europe made formal Interpretative Statements regarding the inclusion in the treaty of the controversial term “sexual and reproductive health” which appears for the first time in any hard law UN document. Today’s Interpretative Statements, which went unchallenged by any country, reaffirmed the clear understanding during the treaty negotiations that this term cannot legitimately be misrepresented to include abortion, create any new rights such as a right to abortion and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion.

In light of all these statements and the language of the treaty, the committee responsible for enforcing compliance to this treaty would be going way beyond their mandate if they were to make this misinterpretation. It is crucial that they do not because nations that sign and ratify a treaty are required to change their laws in order to comply with the treaty.

The reason pro-life national delegations and NGOs were concerned with this special inclusion of the term “reproductive health” in a binding treaty was because, in the past, the committees charged with enforcing compliance to other UN Human Rights Treaties have frequently gone way beyond their mandate and pressured States Parties to legalize abortion even though these treaties do not contain any reference to “sexual and reproductive health” or any similar term. Also, other UN bodies and powerful Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have falsely interpreted this term (which already appears in non-binding UN documents) as including a right to abortion to justify, sometimes successfully, promoting legalization of abortion in countries throughout the world.

The Convention now must be signed and ratified by each country separately. It will go into effect thirty days after twenty countries have ratified it. The treaty will only be binding on those countries that sign and ratify it.

Three of the strongest statements were made by the US, the Holy See .and the Marshall Islands

Relevant Excerpt from US Statement

In this regard, the United States understands that the phrase “reproductive health” in Article 25(a) of the draft Convention does not include abortion, and its use in that Article does not create any abortion rights, and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion. We stated this understanding at the time of adoption of the Convention in the Ad Hoc Committee, and note that no other delegation suggested a different understanding of this term.”

Relevant Excerpt from Holy See Statement

Finally, and most importantly, regarding article 25 on health, and specifically the reference to sexual and reproductive health, the Holy See understands access to reproductive health as being a holistic concept that does not consider abortion or access to abortion as a dimension of those terms. Moreover, we agree with the broad consensus that has been voiced in this chamber and the travaux préparatoires that this article does not create any new international rights and is merely intended to ensure that a person’s disability is not used as a basis for denying a health service.

However, even with this understanding, we opposed the inclusion of such a phrase in this article, because in some countries reproductive health services include abortion, thus denying the inherent right to life of every human being, affirmed by article 10 of the Convention. It is surely tragic that, wherever fetal defect is a precondition for offering or employing abortion, the same Convention created to protect persons with disabilities from all discrimination in the exercise of their rights, may be used to deny the very basic right to life of disabled unborn persons.

For this reason, and despite the many helpful articles this Convention contains, the Holy See is unable to sign it.”

Relevant Excerpt from Marshall Islands Statement

Based on the fact that the Preamble expresses the intent of the treaty, the Marshall Islands affirms that support for the Convention is based on the conviction that persons with disabilities have “inherent dignity and worth” on an equal basis with all other persons.

The Marshall Islands understands that Article 10, [The Right to Life] guarantees “the Right to Life” of disabled persons from the moment of conception and throughout their lives until natural death.

The Marshall Islands accepts the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” with the understanding that it does not include abortion, that its use in Article 25 (a) [Health] does not create any abortions rights, and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion and does not create and would not constitute recognition of any new international law obligations or human rights.

The Marshall Islands is fully committed to protecting the lives of persons with disabilities and understands that paragraph 25 (f) is to be interpreted as ensuring that such persons are not denied medical life preserving treatment with the intent of ending their lives, and that they shall not be denied food and fluids to preserve life, regardless of the method of administration.