|Goals Set By UN Conference on Children Skirt Abortion|
Goals Set By UN Conference on Children Skirt AbortionNew York Times, May 11, 2002, Late Edition - Final
By Somini Sengupta, United Nations
After nearly 30 hours of bitter, nonstop negotiations over teenagers and sex, delegates to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children tentatively agreed tonight on a declaration of goals.
The Bush administration and its allies from the Vatican and some Islamic countries failed in their bid to get an explicit policy against making abortion available to teenagers. Nor did it manage to make abstinence for unmarried teenagers the centerpiece of sex education. Those pressing for a family to be defined as a married man and woman lost in their efforts as well. The United States did win in its attempts to play down the importance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark 1989 treaty that the United States has not ratified.
A ban on executing criminals under 18—something the European Union had backed, against the wishes of the America delegation—did not make it either. As a result, the declaration does not oblige any country to abolish capital punishment for juveniles, a practice allowed by nearly half of all American states.
"Those issues that were polemical until the end were settled in a package," said Dirk Rotenberg, a spokesman for the German mission to the United Nations. The Germans chaired the negotations over the document. "We can deliver to the children, and we are proud of that."
The most fractious debates during the three-day session concerned the use of the term "reproductive health services." That language did not endorse abortion as a family planning method, but declared that abortions ought to be safe in countries where they are legal.
The Bush administration argued that the phrase connotes abortion. They sought to remove it or amend it to exclude abortion explicitly.
Delegates from other nations, including those from predominantly Roman Catholic Latin American countries, had opposed the United States' efforts to limit what other countries can offer as part of a menu of reproductive health services.
Tonight, the Bush administration achieved partial victory. The term "reproductive health services" was expunged from the document, but it contained document no specific proscriptions.
A United States official said the compromise language needed no annotations on abortion. "The language is general enough so it doesn't suggest that abortion is appropriate for children," the official said. "We have a consensus document that meets U.S. concerns."
Among advocates who had assailed the Bush administration all week for trying to water down language that world leaders had already agreed to, relief mixed with disenchantment this evening.
"With respect to child rights and adolescent health and reproductive rights it is an extremely weak document," said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. "It won't hurt anything. But we lost an opportunity here."
Several countries and a host of children's advocacy groups had hoped the final document would rely on the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the legal standard for children's rights. But the language agreed upon offered the treaty no special status. "The Convention itself has just been sidelined," said Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch.
The United States is one of two countries that have yet to ratify the children's convention. Somalia, the other holdout, signed the convention earlier in the week, and is expected to ratify it. The United States has opposed the treaty, in part because it condemns the use of capital punishment against minors.
Critics assailed the Bush administration for stalling negotiations on the document. The American delegation's attempts to have what an American official called a frank conversation with non-governmental organizations did not seem to aid the government's cause.
Holding aloft neon pink signs reading "Shame," representatives of non-governmental groups that advocate sex education for teens, spilled out of the meeting, fuming. Reporters were barred from the meeting.
Advocates from around the world said they feared that the weak language in the conference document would hinder their efforts to force their own governments to pass laws and invest in programs, from sex education in the schools to money for health clinics that teach kids how to steer clear of H.I.V. Half of all new H.I.V. infections in the world are among youngsters.
Priyanka Debnath, 18, of Bangladesh, wondered aloud why she and her peers had come all this way. "This entire thing is political, but it's our health," she said. "Why are we here?"
Orignally published in The New York Times, May 11, 2002. Reprinted with permission.