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UN CSW: debating women’s reproductive rights or a “culture of death” ?

In a cynical ploy, conservative religious groups based in the Global North now frame reproductive rights advocacy in the Global South as the neocolonialist imposition of a uniquely western value system.

After more than a year of legislative debate, on March 18 Chile’s parliament decriminalized abortion in three extreme cases: when the woman’s life is in danger, when she has been raped, or when the foetus is diagnosed as unviable. Chile’s decision, made under the progressive leadership of President Michelle Bachelet shrinks the number of nations that forbid abortion under all circumstances to five. However, anyone who works in the area of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights knows better than to assume inexorable forward progress.

At this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the usual tension in intergovernmental negotiations on the inclusion of reproductive rights in the Commission’s consensus outcome document was intensified by a hardening of conservative positions on the family around the world. Parallel civil society discussions saw growing assertiveness and complexity in the arguments used by conservative groups advocating for restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.  Recent events such as the spread of the Zika virus in Latin America raise the stakes in international debates on women’s right to terminate pregnancy.  So too does the much-anticipated imminent release of Pope Francis’s post-synod  document on family issues.

The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See has always assumed a prominent public presence at CSW.  This year it  partnered with conservative family rights organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and the Campaign Life Coalition in a series of side events at UNHQ. At these events, pro-family rhetoric sidestepped traditional appeals to right to life in favour of a different approach. Speakers echoed Pope Francis’s recent condemnation of “ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family,” and framed reproductive rights advocacy in the Global South as the neocolonialist imposition of a uniquely Western value system, one perpetuating a “culture of death.”

A Holy See panel at the CSW. Photo: Rosalie Fransen

“There is not one African culture, but we have one common thread that runs through many countries: our understanding that human life is precious,” a speaker from an African pro-life nonprofit said during a Holy See-led panel event on maternal health in Africa. “Through different platforms a lot of the West suggests strongly that abortion has to be legalized to reduce maternal mortality. This is diametrically opposed to a lot of our shared values, how we see life as being sacred from the moment of conception. So one cannot help but ask: is this another form of colonization?”

Archbishop Bernadito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the UN. Photo: Wikimedia

The panel addressed a mostly Caucasian audience of about 400, amongst which were members of several prominent family rights groups. Archbishop Bernadito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, kicked off the event, lamenting incidents of discrimination against mothers and the perception of motherhood as an “antiquated concept.” He was followed by a panelist who cited World Health Organization statistics, stating only 9% of maternal deaths are a result of unsafe abortions, and advocated for a “91% solution.”

“We need sort of a Marshall Plan for mothers, similar to how the world came together around the AIDS and Ebola pandemics,” the panelist said, as he flipped through a slideshow displaying graphic images of visibly ill and – shockingly - deceased African mothers.

“Where is the fight from the women’s movement?” he asked, prompting loud applause from the audience. “Mothers are women too, right?”

Pamphlets handed out at one of the Holy See side events. Photo: Rosalie Fransen

Here, family rights discourse takes a novel turn. It positions progressive approaches to reproductive rights in direct opposition to African family values and culture, tapping into age-old Global South resentment about domineering, colonizing Western values. At the same time, it blames Western development actors for the persistence of maternal mortality on the African continent, accusing them of hijacking the conversation around maternal health and obscuring locally-appropriate obstetric care solutions with an undue emphasis on abortion.

Pro-family activity at the UN is not a new phenomenon, but it has expanded significantly in the past year. January 2015 saw the formation of the Group of Friends of the Family, a coalition of 18 member states who believe human rights are “best promoted and protected within the family environment.” The coalition had their first major victory in July, when the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the “Protection of the Family.” The resolution, co-sponsored by Friends of the Family members Russia and Saudi Arabia, reaffirms the family unit as “natural” and “fundamental” and notes that “contribution of the family in society and in the achievement of development goals continues to be largely overlooked and underemphasized.” The Sexual Rights Initiative was quick to call the document “damaging and divisive,” noting it denied the rights of individuals in favor of protecting the ‘traditional’ family unit.

In their presentations, panelists at Holy See-sponsored side events frequently quoted this resolution. They also referenced the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child, specifically the passage that states children need “special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Unsurprisingly, recent developments on the legislative reproductive and sexual rights front, such as the US statement of support to sexual rights, and the March 8 release of General Comment 22 on sexual and reproductive health to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were unequivocally condemned, with one panelist calling the latter “a disgrace.”

Legislative arguments are not new among those advocating a conservative family rights agenda, but for conservative religious groups based in the Global North to argue that women’s reproductive rights reflect a narrative of Western ideological domination is.  As a tactic to garner support from developing countries this is a cynical ploy, but effective in an era of renewed geopolitical polarization. This approach glosses over the issues that go unaddressed in the Holy See’s CSW rhetoric. Among them are the diversity of African perspectives on reproductive rights beyond the views of a single African panelist, the extensive consequences of unsafe abortions on women’s health aside from death, as well as the well-established recognition that abortion legislation needs to be paired with sufficient public education and medical capacity-building to be wholly effective in reducing maternal mortality. Also absent are discussions of women and girls impregnated via sexual violence, a group for whom restricting access to abortion has been called a “form of torture” by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

As a member of the audience stated during the Q&A portion of a Holy See-led panel: “If you want to be sure not to start colonization anew, let people decide over their own bodies.” The final, adopted CSW outcome document took a noteworthy step in that direction: calling for universally accessible emergency contraception. Though one battle may be won, CSW does not resolve all issues and its theme this year - achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals – will require continued international determination to surmount harmful narratives and enable women around the world to control their reproductive choices.

This article is part of oD 50.50’s series covering key debates at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women.


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