UNITED NATIONS – Ten years after a landmark United Nations (search) conference adopted a platform aimed at global equality for women, the United States is demanding that a follow-up meeting make clear women are not guaranteed a right to abortion.
The high-level U.N. meeting attended Monday by more than 100 countries and 6,000 advocates for women's causes is taking stock of what countries have done to implement the 150-page platform of action adopted at the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing to achieve equality of the sexes.
But in informal consultations ahead of the meeting, the United States raised the abortion issue as a first order of business.
The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (search), which organized the meeting, had hoped the two-week session would focus on overcoming the roadblocks to women's equality in 12 areas from health, education and employment to political participation and human rights. But the dispute over abortion is likely to dominate the gathering.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), however, focused on the need for action to achieve the equal rights of women and men enshrined on the first page of the U.N. Charter 60 years ago.
While the past decade has seen life expectancy increase, more girls enrolled in schools, and more women earning an income than ever before, Annan said trafficking of women and children has become an increasingly common practice, and HIV/AIDS has experienced "terrifying growth" among women.
He urged the international community "to change the historical legacy that puts women at a disadvantage in most societies" and instead ensure that girls get a secondary school education, guarantee women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, and eliminate inequality in employment.
He also called for more women in national parliaments and policy-making positions, and redoubled efforts to combat violence against girls and women.
"Above all, I would urge the entire international community to remember that promoting gender equality is not only women's responsibility — it is the responsibility of all of us," he said.
The commission drafted a short declaration — reaffirming the Beijing platform — which it had hoped to have adopted by consensus before Monday's opening session.
But at an informal closed-door meeting on Thursday, the United States said it could not accept the declaration because of concerns that the Beijing platform legalized the right to abortion as a human right, according to several participants.
On Friday, the United States proposed an amendment to the draft declaration that would reaffirm the Beijing platform and declaration — but only "while reaffirming that they do not create any new international human rights, and that they do not include the right to abortion," according to the text obtained by The Associated Press.
Kyung-wha Kang, who chairs the commission and presided at Monday's meeting, said the declaration is not meant to add anything new but simply "to give Beijing further momentum for further implementation."
"It's not a human rights convention," Kang said.
But Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said "These amendments are consistent with U.S. government views."
At the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo, delegates approved a platform recognizing that abortion is a fact that governments must deal with as a public health issue. At Beijing the following year, delegates went further, asking governments to review laws that punish women for having abortions.
But attempts to approve stronger language on access to abortions failed at Beijing, and references to sexual rights and sexual orientation were dropped. Nonetheless, the Beijing platform stated for the first time that women have the right to "decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality ... free of coercion, discrimination and violence."
The Vatican and a handful of Islamic and Catholic countries opposed any reference to abortion at those conferences, while the West and hundreds of women's rights activists supported them — including the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
But his successor, President Bush, has taken a much tougher stand against abortion, as reflected in the proposed amendment.