U.N. Special Session on Children Opens Today Amid Continued Debate Over Abortion, Abstinence Education
The U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Children opens today in New York City, and although the conference is just beginning, it is already "riven by acrimony" over language in the final conference document that the Bush administration and its allies contend would allow minors access to abortion, the New York Times reports. The debate centers on the inclusion of the phrase "reproductive health services" in the list of children's rights. The Bush administration, which is represented at the conference by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, says that the phrase could be construed to include the right to abortion and wants to footnote the document to specify that this is not the case. However, according to one U.S. official, while the Bush administration wants to make it clear that abortion is not included among these rights, "[n]obody wants to put it down and spell it out." The U.S. position is supported by Catholic nations from Central and South America and several Islamic nations (Sengupta, New York Times, 5/8). However, most other member nations do not share this interpretation of "reproductive health services" and support the document language as it stands. Many observers believe that the United States and its allies will not sign the document if the debate over semantics is not cleared up. John Dauth, Australia's ambassador to the United Nations, said that it if that occurs, it "wouldn't be right to say the meeting has failed, just that the atmosphere won't be helped by the fact that the document is not signed." Australia, like the United States, does not permit the use of foreign aid to provide abortion services or training, but it supports the U.N. document (Overington, Age, 5/8).
The Bush administration also objects to any mention of the use of condoms to prevent pregnancy and the spread of HIV/AIDS, instead arguing that the document should promote abstinence -- "both before and during marriage" -- as the only way to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS. Bush is supported in this effort by an "unlikely behind-the-scenes alliance" that includes the Vatican and the Islamic nations of Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Sudan. Most other U.N. member nations, including the predominantly Catholic nations of Central and South America, have agreed to provisions in the document calling for the availability of birth control and sex education services to adolescents, but the Bush administration says that contraception is not a "solution to the world's AIDS crisis" (Saunders, Toronto Globe & Mail, 5/8). "It is a dangerous proposition coming from an important country. It is retrogressive and violates the rights of access for young people to comprehensive health and [information about] how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS," Bene Madunagu, chair of the board of the Nigerian Girls Power Initiative, a group that deals with rape and teen parenthood, said. Monica Rusk, an 18-year-old American delegate, added, "Let's get real: Every minute five young people around the world become infected with HIV. This is not just a statistic, this is my generation. Don't censor sex education" (Leopold, Reuters, 5/8). The U.S. delegation also objects to any language that would appear to endorse the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Senate has declined to ratify the treaty, which was signed by President Clinton in 1995, because some members fear that certain provisions in the document would "place the rights of children over those of the parents" in some circumstances, possibly allowing minors access to reproductive health services such as abortion and contraception without their parents' knowledge. The conference will continue through Friday (New York Times, 5/8). NPR's "Morning Edition" today included a segment on the children's forum preceding today's opening of the special session and an interview with Nils Daulaire, president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Both segments will be available in RealPlayer Audio online after noon ET ("Morning Edition," NPR, 5/8). A new fact sheet from the Kaiser Family Foundation on HIV/AIDS and young people is available online. In addition, kaisernetwork.org from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. tomorrow will feature a HealthCast of "Cutting Edge HIV Prevention for Children and Youth," an interactive event at the U.N. Special Session on Children that will feature youth leaders and HIV prevention experts discussing innovative HIV/AIDS prevention strategies for at-risk children and youth. The HealthCast can be viewed online. An archived webcast of this event will also be available after 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, May 10.