U.S. Negotiates at U.N. Special Session for Removal of References to ‘Reproductive Health Services,’ Promote Abstinence for Preventing HIV/AIDS
In private meetings yesterday, U.S. delegates to the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Children "demanded" that references to children's right to "reproductive health services" in the conference's final document be removed and that the document be altered to "explicitly state that it in no way endorses abortion," the Washington Post reports (DeYoung/Lynch, Washington Post, 5/9). The U.S. delegation, which is headed by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, said that the phrase "reproductive health services" could be construed to include the right to access to abortion and that he wants to footnote the document to state specifically that this is not the case. The U.S. position is supported by the Vatican and several Islamic nations (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 5/8). Tim Wirth, a former Democratic senator and Clinton administration official, noted that U.N. conference documents produced in the last decade have used the phrase with the intent that it apply to "safe abortion in those countries where it is not against the law, and the complications of unsafe abortion everywhere else" (Orme, Los Angeles Times, 5/9). Those documents generally left the decision about abortion to individual nations, and many delegates, most notably those from the European Union, want to keep that option (Sengupta, New York Times, 5/9). But the U.S. delegation has insisted on removing or footnoting the phrase. Thompson "didn't flinch" yesterday in a private meeting when several E.U. officials accused him of being "intransigent" on the issue, saying that he was "following the wishes of President Bush," according to one source familiar with the meeting (Archibald, Washington Times, 5/9). Although most sources say that the majority of nations agree that "reproductive health services" should include access to abortion in countries where it is legal, U.S. delegation members say that many delegates from other nations have agreed privately that the phrase does not "connote" the right to abortion or abortion counseling. However, those delegates had not agreed to publicly endorse the U.S. plan (Lederer, AP/Boston Globe, 5/9). Even if the United States does not succeed in altering the document, consensus on the document is still possible; the U.S. delegation can endorse the document as a whole but voice its concerns about specific provisions, such as the reproductive health phrase, the New York Times reports.
The U.S. delegation yesterday also requested that abstinence be promoted as the major focus of the sex education component of the document. "As President Bush has said, abstinence is the only sure way of avoiding sexually transmitted disease, premature pregnancy and the social and personal difficulties attendant to nonmarital sexual activity," Thompson said, adding that U.S. efforts "include strengthening close parent-child relationships, encouraging the delay of sexual activity and supporting abstinence education programs" (New York Times, 5/9). However, some critics, especially those concerned about HIV/AIDS prevention, disagree with the U.S. position of highlighting abstinence. The international community "must get beyond taboos and conservative ideas about what young people should know about condoms and contraception," Advocates for Youth President James Wagoner said, noting that 7,000 young people contract HIV every day. "[I]t is unconscionable that the U.S. delegation is promoting ignorance in the era of AIDS," he added (Advocates for Youth release, 5/8). Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, said, "The world has recognized and agreed on five previous occasions that adolescents are at great risk [for] HIV infection, unwanted pregnancy and botched abortions. The Bush administration is trying to take us back to the Dark Ages."
Concerns Over Influence
Many critics of the United States' objections to abortion-related language and its promotion of abstinence-focused sex education are concerned that the make-up of the delegation is influencing its positions. Most U.N. conference delegations include "special private-sector advisers." Federal regulations stipulate that such advisers reflect a "balanced representation of interests," but critics charge that the current U.S. delegation is skewed toward conservatives. The delegation includes John Klink, a Vatican adviser who Bush considered appointing to a State Department position but dropped due to abortion-rights supporters' concerns over his antiabortion stance; Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America, a conservative antiabortion group; Paul Bonicelli of Patrick Henry College, a small Christian institution; Robert Smith, president of Messmer High School, a Catholic school in Thompson's home state of Wisconsin; and Diana Negroponte, wife of John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (DeYoung/Lynch, Washington Post, 5/9).
Gates to Address Conference
Microsoft Chair Bill Gates, founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will address the conference today and plans to "call on rich countries to spend and do more to save the lives of the 11 million children who die each year from preventable diseases," the Post reports. "Rich governments are not fighting these diseases because the rich world doesn't have them. The private sector generally is not developing vaccines for poor countries because poor countries can't buy them," Gates said this week in an interview. He is expected today in his speech to note that half of all 15-year-olds in South Africa and Zimbabwe will eventually die of AIDS-related causes and that an estimated 44 million children will have lost one or both parents to the disease by 2010 if additional prevention and treatment measures are not taken. "We can't change the past. But we can change the future, as long as we start now," Gates said (DeYoung, Washington Post, 5/9).
PRI's "The World" yesterday reported on the debate over language in the U.N. document. The full segment is available online in RealPlayer Audio (Clark, "The World," PRI, 5/8). In addition, kaisernetwork.org from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today 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 p.m. ET on Friday, May 10. A new fact sheet from the Kaiser Family Foundation on HIV/AIDS and young people is available online.