In the United Nations Special Session on Children, May 8-10, the Bush administration stood virtually isolated from the world community because of its opposition to comprehensive reproductive health services and sex education for teenagers.

The session concluded with a compromise declaration of goals to improve child health, protection and education over the next decade. The U.S. failed in its efforts to get the document to include a specific statement against making abortion available to teenagers, and to emphasize abstinence in sex education. It also failed in efforts to define the family as a married man and woman.

But the Bush administration did succeed in weakening the language of the document and downplaying the importance of the landmark 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S. is the only country opposing this treaty. U.S. right-wingers claim it undermines parental authority, and also oppose it because it condemns capital punishment for minors. The U.S. prevented the final document from including a ban on such executions.

The U.S., supported only by the Vatican, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, opposed references to ‘reproductive health services’ because it said this phrase could be interpreted as condoning abortion. The final wording did not reject abortion, but it omitted the term ‘reproductive health services.’

Katherine Hall Martinez, acting director of the International Program at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, told the World the ‘obsessive attitude’ of the U.S. delegation toward reproductive issues ‘is another clear indication of how extreme this administration is, and how much it is in the pocket of a very small minority that is out of sync with the mainstream.’

The right of young people to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services was recognized at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, with support from the Clinton administration.

While advocates for child and adolescent rights expressed relief that much of the Bush administration agenda was rejected by the U.N. session, they also voiced dissatisfaction with the U.S. success in watering down the document, which, said Hall Martinez, ‘serves as a blueprint for what the world’s governments understand their responsibilities to be.’

‘With respect to child rights and adolescent health and reproductive rights it is an extremely weak document,’ said Adrienne Germain, International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) president.

‘Our colleagues feel very strongly that they need the strongest, clearest language possible so they can keep pushing forward,’ said Francoise Girard, an IWHC senior program officer. The wording of the plan matters, she says, because it gives non-governmental organizations power to hold agencies and governments accountable for their policies.

The watered-down document, Hall Martinez said, ‘belies the fact that we have a crisis.’ Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide, according to U.N. figures. In developing countries, women face a 1-in-48 risk of dying as a result of giving birth. Every hour, 300 people under the age of 25 become infected with HIV. In some nations adolescent girls are infected at a rate five to six times higher than boys. Every minute, 10 girls in that age group undergo an unsafe abortion, according to the World Health Organization.

In a letter to The New York Times, Linda Blaydon Olson, a U.N. representative of the World Young Women’s Christian Association, said, ‘The success of the Bush administration in weakening the language of the United Nations declaration on children reflected the desires of a small minority of Americans whose actions are dictated by religious ideology rather than compassion.’

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.