Abortion as the law: dangerous mischief at the United Nations

Austin Ruse


Descargar Abortion as the law: dangerous mischief at the United Nations

Just as U.S. abortion proponents did an end run
to the courts and around the democratic process,
international abortion proponents have attempted
the same thing, this time using international
documents drafted through negotiations
at the United Nations (UN) and its attendant
agencies, conferences, and commissions.
Just as we understand that the courts are the part
of government furthest removed from the
people, how much further removed is the typical
citizen from the always arcane and mostly
unknown international organs that operate in
New York, Geneva, Vienna, and elsewhere? Yet
these are the bodies which seek to remove all
limits to abortion in roughly 191 countries. Clustered
around these quasigovernmental entities
is a network of international and national activist
groups – scholars, lawyers, journalists –
which applies significant legal and financial
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muscle to bring the whole world into line with
abortion-on-demand, that is, abortion without
the necessity of a reason. This chapter will show
the state of abortion in national laws around the
world and how generally non-binding UN instruments
are used to change those laws.
An Overview
The tide of abortion runs high around the world.
We know this chiefly from two studies, one from
the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy,1 a
New York-based legal and policy think tank that
promotes abortion-on-demand internationally,
and the other from the generally unbiased Population
Division of the UN’s Department of Economic
and Social Affairs,2 the chief UN statisticians.
Each study examines the laws in 191 countries
and categorizes them according to their
abortion policies. The laws run the spectrum
from allowing abortion only to save the mother’s
life to abortion-on-demand, with most countries
(124 out of 191) falling somewhere in between.
These 124 countries represent 66 percent of the
world’s population.3 Abortion laws in the
middle group of 67 countries, representing 34
percent of the world’s population, run the fairly
narrow range of familiar reasons: the mother’s
physical health, mental health, and socioeconomic
grounds.4 Most countries also allow abortion
because of rape and incest.5
The seventy-four countries, representing 26
percent of the world’s population, with the most
pro-life laws on abortion (allowing abortion only
to save the mother’s life) are mostly from the
developing world (Latin America, Africa, the
Near and Far East).6 They include: Bangladesh,
Benin, Chile, Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, LebaDangerous
Mischief at the United Nations 3
non, Mexico, Myanmar, Syria, Uganda, Yemen,
and others. Three European countries are included
in this group: Ireland, Andorra, and
Thirty-three nations, with 9.9 percent of the
world’s population, allow abortion to save the
mother’s physical health and her life. They include:
Argentina, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco,
Qatar, Peru, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.
Two European nations fall within this
group: Poland and Liechtenstein.8
Twenty nations, representing 2.6 percent of
the world’s population, allow abortion for reasons
of mental health, as well as to save the
mother’s physical health or life. They include
Algeria, Bahrain, Gambia, Israel, New Zealand,
Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland.9
Fourteen nations, representing 20.7 percent
of the world’s population, allow abortion on socioeconomic
grounds, as well as to protect the
mother’s physical health, mental heath or life.
This group is more economically advanced and
includes Nordic countries which tend to lead the
way in pressuring smaller states to allow abortion-
on-demand. It group includes: Australia,
Finland, Iceland, India, Japan, Luxembourg, and
the United Kingdom.10
The last category includes those countries
with the most expansive abortion laws – that is,
laws without restriction as to reason. This group
includes fifty nations representing 40.8 percent
of the world’s population. Among others they
are: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, China,
Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy,
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Netherlands, Norway, Russian Federation, Turkey,
and the United States.11
A closer look at this last category shows that,
with the possible exception of China, it is the
U.S. that has the most unlimited abortion. Even
with measures such as parental notification, the
U.S. abortion regime is abortion-on-demand up
to the moment of delivery and beyond.12 While
a number of nations fall within the category of
“on demand,” one still finds limits in other countries
that do not exist in the U.S. The most obvious
is the “gestational restriction,” which sets a
time limit beyond which a woman may not get
an abortion. Many European nations, including
France, Germany, Greece, Norway and others,
have legal gestational limits to abortion of between
twelve and fourteen weeks.13
The Real Story
Of course, this survey of the international situation
hides the frequently meaningless nature of
many of these laws. Going even one step beyond
the “life of the mother” allowance can result in
de facto abortion on demand. In the United States,
for instance, the Supreme Court decided the
abortion case Doe v. Bolton the same day it decided
Roe.14 Doe established the legality of abortions
for the mental health of the mother, and
thus allowed abortion-ondemand. Such “mental
health of the mother” loopholes exist in other
countries’ laws as well. Even when a “gestational
limit” is part of the law, in practice it is
frequently ignored.
Abortion was officially condemned in
French law from 1920 to 1975. The 1975 law allowed
abortion up to the tenth week of pregDangerous
Mischief at the United Nations 5
nancy, but this was expanded to twelve weeks
in 2001. Abortions are also allowed in the later
stages of pregnancy to save the mother’s life, or
because of a lethal disease of the child. Parental
authorization had also been required for girls
under the age of eighteen, but this was struck
down in 2001. Moreover, every woman seeking
an abortion is supposed to be counseled by
Planned Parenthood about the procedure and
its consequences.15
Germany, too, has a legal “gestational limit”
of fourteen weeks, and German women also
must have pre-abortion counseling and then be
“certified” for an abortion. However, according
to Thomas Friedl, staff member for the German
Parliament, “this is most ineffective; 98 percent
of abortions proceed after these counseling sessions.”
At the other end of the spectrum, according
to both CRLP and the UN Population Division,
Argentina upholds its abortion laws most vigorously.
17 An Argentine woman may seek an
abortion after a counseling session with a doctor,
who may then determine that her life depends
on having an abortion. The decision rests
with a medical professional, who, at least for
now, is unlikely to expand access according to
vague or unverifiable “health” claims.
Thus, the availability of abortion depends
upon both a country’s abortion laws and the
willingness of the country’s medical professionals
to ensure the laws are not flouted.
All countries in the world have come under
pressure to change their laws to allow for abor6
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tion.18 This is true even in the nearly unrestricted
United States. Most of this pressure comes from
the international abortion lobby working from
the United States and the European Union. True
to their anti-democratic record, they work from
the top down, using international instruments
negotiated at the United Nations and the European
Parliament. A wide array of international
organizations is involved, including rich foundations
(Ford, Gates), lending institutions (the
World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund), and UN agencies (UN Children’s Fund,
UN Population Fund, and the World Health
The Latest Ruse: Abortion as a universal
“human right”
In recent years abortion has become something
of an obsession at the UN and increasingly
within the EU. Formally, the idea is to create
what is called “customary international law.”
Customary international law is created either
through the near unanimous, nationby-nation
ratification of certain laws, the single-stroke acceptance
of an international treaty, or the repetitious
use or acceptance of certain phrases and
ideas in international documents.
On the question of abortion, proponents
have never attempted a straightforward treaty
on this subject alone, and they certainly will not
try anytime soon. They simply do not have the
support of world opinion, and they know it.
Abortion is hardly ever mentioned by name in
UN documents precisely because it is so contentious.
Instead, code words are used, like “reproductive
health.” They have attempted mostly
Dangerous Mischief at the United Nations 7
to change abortion laws country-bycountry –
sometimes through the legislative process, often
through national courts.
What is fairly new, however, is the attempt
to establish customary international law through
the repetitious use of undefined or ill-defined
terms that actually mean abortion. This strategy
was in play in numerous international meetings
and is now easily recognizable in many of the
outcome documents of those meetings: the Cairo
Programme of Action (1994), the Beijing Platform
for Action (1995), and many others.
The phrase used most frequently to mean
abortion is “reproductive health,” although “reproductive
rights” and “reproductive services”
are also used. “Reproductive health” has been
defined as including abortion only once in a governmentally
negotiated UN document, in the
Cairo Programme of Action.19 Never in any other
governmentally negotiated document has “reproductive
health” been so defined. “Reproductive
health,” however, is officially defined by the
World Health Organization as including abortion.
(The WHO definition is a two-step process
that says “reproductive health” includes “fertility
regulation,” which includes termination of
pregnancy.20) It should be noted that the definition
from an agency such as WHO does not carry
the same weight as a definition negotiated and
agreed to by the member states of the UN.
Though vaguely defined by member states
just once at Cairo, abortion proponents prefer
to leave the term “reproductive health” undefined.
They know the Cairo definition was a
once-in-a-lifetime event, probably never to be
8 The International Scene
repeated, and so they have come to rely on this
implicit definition of “reproductive health” as
including abortion. “Reproductive health” is
therefore something of an empty glass that
policy makers can fill anyway they see fit.
The phrase “reproductive health” is used
dozens of times in UN resolutions and reports.
It is used in documents related to women
(Beijing21 and Beijing +522), housing (Habitat23),
and the environment (Rio’s Agenda 2124 and the
Earth Summit +5).25 It is also used regularly in
less formal documents produced by the myriad
UN commissions, for instance, the Commission
on the Status of Women, and the Commission
on Population and Development.
The phrase is used frequently in UN reports.
In its annual report for 2000, the United Nations
Population Fund (UNFPA) used the phrase a
total of 186 times (the report mentioned clean
water and safe sanitation only once each).26
It is clear from the documentary evidence
that “reproductive health,” which is understood
to include abortion, is among the highest priorities
of the UN system. The purpose is to pressure
governments to change their national laws,
which is accomplished in two ways: first, in the
documents individually and in the UN committees
that many of the documents establish; second,
the accumulation of all these documents
bolsters the claim that abortion is a new international
norm, or part of customary international
The best example of the first approach is the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Dangerous Mischief at the United Nations 9
Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a
treaty now ratified by more than 150 nations
(though not by the U.S., as of this writing in September
2002). CEDAW created a committee to
which nations (“States parties”) must report at
least every four years on their progress in
CEDAW implementation. Though the framers
of CEDAW did not include abortion in the document,
they did include “family planning,” another
notoriously ill-defined UN phrase, and
based on this phrase they have pressured a number
of “States parties” to legalize abortion, including
Ireland, Mexico, and Peru. It should be
emphasized that while the U.S. can effectively
ignore pressure tactics coming from UN committees,
many smaller states cannot. In fact,
negative reports from UN committees can create
large political disturbances for smaller states.
It is the second tactic, however, that most
concerns international abortion opponents – that
is, the accumulation of “reproductive health”
language into customary international law.
Abortion opponents have long feared that the
repetitious use of the phrase “reproductive
health” in UN documents could be used to argue
for a new international norm – a universal
right to abortion. Proponents will say that the
norm has been established precisely because so
many governments have so often agreed to the
phrase, that the right to abortion is understood.
Abortion proponents had not admitted this
tactic publicly until a lawsuit filed against the
Bush Administration in the year 2001.27 Filed by
the New York-based Center for Reproductive
Law and Policy (CRLP), the suit concerns the
“Mexico City” policy, a Reagan-era prohibition
10 The International Scene
on U.S. taxpayer money going to any nongovernmental
organization that supports or performs
abortions overseas. The policy was maintained
during the first Bush Administration but
struck down by President Clinton on his first
day in office. It was reinstated on the first day
of the George W. Bush presidency. In the suit,
CRLP claimed the policy violated their First
Amendment right to free speech. But the most
interesting part of their suit was the claim that
abortion was a universal human right that had
been established as such in non-binding UN
According to the CRLP suit, “Customary
international law is embodied, inter alia, in treaties
(even if not ratified by the United States),
the writings of international law jurists, and
documents produced by United Nations international
conferences.”28 CRLP goes on to say that
even if Roe v. Wade were struck down by the U.S.
Supreme Court, because of the establishment of
a customary right, abortion would still be the
law of our land, indeed, that abortion is the law
of the world. It should also be emphasized that
the CRLP claim is based at least partially on treaties
the U.S. has never ratified and upon UN
resolutions that possess no force in law. Though
the suit was dismissed for lack of standing, it
clearly reveals the intent and tactics of abortion
proponents at the international level.
At this point, abortion opponents at the UN
can claim a limited victory because abortion proponents
have tried to make abortion a universally
recognized human right in UN documents,
but they have failed. They have succeeded only
insofar as they have been able to obfuscate the
Dangerous Mischief at the United Nations 11
meaning of words (specifically, “reproductive
health”) for their own purposes.
The Future
The greatest concern on the horizon is the International
Criminal Court, ostensibly a war-crimes
tribunal that came into force in the summer of
2002. One draft document on the Court included
the term “forced pregnancy,” which could have
been used to attack pro-life laws as “crime(s)
against humanity.” Abortion proponents have
long advocated what they call a “rights-based
approach” to “reproductive health.” The International
Criminal Court will probably be used
to advance this approach.
The good news on the international front is
the increasing close contact and collaboration
between pro-life movements across the globe.
It is now typical that pro-life leaders, including
governmental leaders, work closely together to
thwart the advance of abortion-on-demand. A
growing governmental and non-governmental
coalition at the international level, which fights
the dangerous mischief of the abortion lobby at
the UN and the European Parliament, may undo
the damage of recent years and pave the way
for advances in the cause of life.

Austin Ruse is President of the New York-based
Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute
(C-FAM), an international non-governmental organization
focusing exclusively on UN matters. Mr.
Ruse is also founder and President of the International
Organizations Research Group.
14 The International Scene
Dangerous Mischief at the United Nations 15
1 Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP),
“The World’s Abortion Laws,” 1999 (hereafter,
2 United Nations Population Division, Department
of Economic and Social Affairs, Abortion Policies,
A Global Review, 2001 (hereafter, “Population Division”).
4 Ibid.
5 Population Division.
6 Id.
7 Id.
9 Ibid.
10 Population Division.
11 CRLP.
12 Population Division.
13 Ibid.
14 Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973).
15 Jean-Frederic Poisson, Chief of Staff of Christine
Boutin, Member of French National Assembly,
interview with author.
16 Interview with the Catholic Family and Human
Rights Institute (CFAM), August 1, 2002.
17 See, for instance, CRLP report prepared for the
Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),
“Supplementary information on Argentina,”
August 2002.
18 See the CRLP website, www.crlp.org.
19 International Conference on Population and Development,
Programme of Action, paragraph
20 See World Health Organization web page,
21 Fourth World Conference on Women, Platform
for Action, paragraph 94.
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22 Beijing +5, Women 2000: Gender, Equality, Development
and Peace for the 21st Century, paragraph
23 Habitat, paragraph 136–f.
24 Agenda 21, United Nations Sustainable Development,
paragraph 6.26.
25 Earth Summit +5, Special Session of the General
Assembly to Review and Approve the Implementation
of Agenda 21, paragraph 30.
26 UNFPA, State of the World Population, 2000.
27 The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy vs.
George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Andrew Natsios,
United States District Court, Southern District of
New York.
28 Id.

Abortion as the law: dangerous mischief at the United Nations
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