Christian Soldiers on the March
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg last September, it was, as they say, déjà vu all over again. The United States, again in the dugout with the Holy See and a number of Islamic countries, deadlocked negotiations until the eleventh hour, opposing a litany of items, including language that would characterize female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and honor killings as human rights violations. "In the end, at 1 in the morning, they agreed to language that was almost identical to what they'd been fighting the whole time," says June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization. "We got what we wanted. But the United States succeeded in stalling the conference and in alienating a lot of countries."
Then came the real weapon of mass destruction, as far as women's rights are concerned: On November 1, Bush announced that the United States was considering withdrawing its support from the landmark agreement reached by 179 countries at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. For the global women's movement, the ICPD is considered a watershed event--the first time an official connection was made between population control and empowering women with information and contraception. With the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference in Bangkok looming in December--a regional meeting for delegates to review the advances made in implementing the ICPD, not to revisit its basic principles--the United States was threatening to oppose the document unless all references to "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights" were deleted.
But this time the Administration miscalculated. "They really overplayed their hand," says Françoise Girard. At an especially revealing moment during the December 11-17 showdown in Bangkok, US adviser Elaine Jones, an international relations officer in the State Department, took the microphone to express her country's--our country's--insistence that natural family-planning methods be emphasized in the conference document, offering her own experience with the Billings method of birth control (which involves checking the viscosity of one's own cervical mucus): "I've used the Billings method for ten years," Jones announced, "and it works." As titters spread across the room, one of the first of many responses came from, of all places, Iran. "Well, I'm an Ob-Gyn," said the Iranian delegate. "I have to tell you that natural family-planning methods have a very high failure rate. And by the way, it says so in all the textbooks that come from United States."
Less touchy-feely were the threats reportedly made by the United States to individual countries, specifically to the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nepal, to withhold their piece of the USAID pie if they didn't vote along with the US delegation. "They were trying to push some governments around pretty hard," said one UN official on condition of anonymity.
"This is the fringe who've taken over US policy on sexual and reproductive health," says Girard. "Some people asked me, 'Do you think they're doing this because they want to save our souls?'" One first-time attendee from the United States said, "If they didn't have so much power I'd feel sorry for them."
In the end, however, the US delegation lost everything. When they demanded a roll-call vote on two sections of the ICPD agreement (dealing with reproductive rights and adolescent health) which they found objectionable, the votes came in at 31 to 1 and 32 to 1, with two countries abstaining--notably, Nepal and Sri Lanka. "They thought calling a vote would intimidate the Asians," says Girard, "when all it did was put on the record that the United States was completely isolated." Another observer remarked that the Americans "played themselves out of the game."
Ultimately, the Americans backed down on their threats to renounce the whole agreement, but they stunned other delegations with their "general reservation" to the document, a schizophrenic two-page addendum expressing disappointment that "the promotion of women's full enjoyment of all human rights is not emphasized more often," while also declaring, "Because the United States supports innocent life from conception to natural death, the United States does not support, promote, or endorse abortions, abortion-related services or the use of abortifacients." (Girard points out that if life begins at conception, the garden-variety Pill would be illegal.) The United States also opposed the term "unsafe abortion," a position explained by Jeanne Head during a fifteen-minute tirade at the closing ceremony: Abortion is never safe, because someone--the fetus--always dies. Thus the US delegation stated in its reservation, "The illegality of abortion cannot be construed as making it unsafe."
Says Girard, "If there was any doubt that Bush wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is clear now."