April 4, 2016 (C-Fam) St. John Paul the Great is the man whom did more than anyone in history to promote the right to life of children in the womb. His legacy at the United Nations is under threat, more than ever.
For the first time in recent memory an annual UN agreement on women’s issues might have mentioned “sexual and reproductive health” and related terms untethered from the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development where St. John Paul the Great stopped the United Nations from declaring an international right to abortion.
Machinations that would have resulted in this possibility did not succeed this week as the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women once more fell back on the Cairo agreement to avoid prolonged contentious negotiations.
The story of the Cairo agreement is remarkable.
A UN declaration of a right to abortion seemed all but inevitable going into the Cairo negotiations in 1994. St. John Paul the Great launched a full court press on UN officials and governments all around the world to stop this, making public statements, and mobilizing the Catholic laity to action.
As a result, the Cairo agreement contains important caveats that have accompanied “sexual and reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” language in UN policy ever since, most importantly at the Commission on the Status of Women each year. These caveats exclude the notion of abortion as an international right, and cast abortion in a negative light.
Ever since 1994 the caveats have been the fall back position of pro-life and pro-family groups and UN member states when it is not feasible to exclude or redefine language that includes abortion by definition in the Cairo agreement.
The caveats have become increasingly important as governments from the West have adopted progressive liberal social polices, most notably the Obama administration. Alongside the notion of an international right to abortion, the Cairo agreement blocked international recognition for homosexual rights, sexual rights, comprehensive sexuality education, a redefinition of the family, and other controversial issues.
While the caveats fall well short of the protections for the unborn that St. John Paul the Great aspired to, they constitute a formidable thorn in the side of abortion groups and their supporters at the United Nations, and effectively, if not by law, still prevent the development of an international right to abortion.
Perhaps most importantly, the caveats limit the mandate of UN agencies and the UN bureaucracy more widely. Though UN agencies and bureaucrats frequently promote abortion rights, sexual rights, homosexual rights, comprehensive sexuality education, and other harmful policies with impunity, they do so without a mandate. Such a mandate will never be forthcoming so long as countries fall back on the Cairo agreement.
Conversely, abortion groups and their supporters at UN headquarters have insistently and disingenuously sought to scrap the Cairo agreement in recent years and to replace it with UN resolutions that further the agenda of the sexual revolution. But every year their efforts have been rebuffed by the inclusion of the caveat “in accordance with” the Cairo agreement when sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights come up in a resolution.
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The predictable pattern of negotiations at the Commission on the Status of Women changed this year. The caveats almost did not make it in the final draft of the agreement, and even some pro-life delegations were willing to see this happen if the term “reproductive rights” did not make it in the draft. Even though the terms “sexual and reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” are defined coextensively in UN policy, and the former includes abortion by definition, they argued it would be more significant to exclude the latter term than preserve the Cairo caveats.
Some pro-life groups, willing to attempt to sanitize these tainted UN terms, now argue that the broader context of the right to health would ameliorate a mention of sexual and reproductive health. This position is increasingly untenable for pro-life groups, especially in light of the efforts of the UN system to establish abortion as a right precisely as part of the right to health.
The Cairo agreement is not without problems, and the Holy See has never accepted it as a compromise because it de facto—even though not legally because it is not binding—strips children of the right to life in international law by legitimizing abortion as a component of sexual and reproductive health in UN policy.
The agreement represents a step back from the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the most widely ratified binding human rights treaty, and one of very few ratified by the Holy See, where children are acknowledged as deserving protection before birth.
This should in fact be considered more properly the legacy of St. John Paul the Great. But so long as powerful countries and abortion groups promote abortion as an international right, they will always remember him as the man who stopped an international right to abortion in 1994, and their greatest antagonist. Every time the Cairo caveats are included in an agreement it is a painful reminder of this. And so long as countries are not willing to roll-back the Cairo agreement, it will be the only position to fall back on for pro-life groups.
Reprinted with permission from C-Fam.