May 13, 2002

May 13, 2002 | Commentary on Family and Marriage

U.N. Treaty Targets Motherhood

Who could object to motherhood? Or to Mother's Day, when we honor the sacrifices made by all mothers?

The United Nations, that's who.

Using a treaty known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations for years has been urging nations worldwide to, among other things, discourage full-time motherhood and scrap observances of Mother's Day.

And thanks in part to an action taken by the Bush administration, it may not be long before the United States is fielding similar criticisms.

Supporters make CEDAW sound harmless enough. It does contain many noble goals, including the equal treatment of girls and women before the law. It advocates their participation in politics and the workplace and seeks to expand their access to health care and education.

All this is laudable. But liberal U.N. members -- and their partners in the "non-governmental organizations" that support their efforts -- are using the treaty to advance a troubling agenda. Consider how one CEDAW committee report scolded Belarus:

"The Committee is concerned by the continuing prevalence of sex-role stereotypes and by the reintroduction of such symbols as a Mother's Day and a Mother's Award, which it sees as encouraging women's traditional roles. It is also concerned whether the introduction of human rights and gender education aimed at countering such stereotyping is being effectively implemented."

While the committee says motherhood is a harmful "stereotype," it considers prostitution a respectable profession to be encouraged. A CEDAW committee report to China expresses "concern that prostitution … is illegal" and "recommends the decriminalization of prostitution in China." In Germany, where the practice is legal, the committee says the real problem is equity: "Although they are legally obliged to pay taxes, prostitutes still do not enjoy the protection of labor and social law."

Just as disturbing is the committee's disdain for dissenting opinions on abortion. A report to Croatia finds that "the refusal, by some hospitals, to provide abortions on the basis of conscientious objection of doctors … [constitutes] an infringement of women's reproductive rights."

The CEDAW committee also has instructed Libya to "reinterpret the Koran" to conform with the treaty and criticized Slovenia because "less than 30 percent of children under three years of age … were in formal day care."

People of good will can disagree on these issues, but should the United Nations be dictating how a sovereign nation conducts its own domestic affairs?

It may seem hard to imagine that such a treaty could be approved by the United States. But there's only one reason CEDAW -- which was signed by the United States in 1980 -- isn't already the law of the land: It never has been ratified by the U.S. Senate.

The chances of this happening on President Bush's watch would seem slim. But earlier this year, with the White House's approval, the State Department updated CEDAW's status to "Category 3" -- low priority, but acceptable and recommended for ratification. Congressional supporters, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who says it's "insulting that such a simple, straightforward bill of rights for women would languish in the greatest democracy in the world," are delighted.

Career bureaucrats in the State Department have operated largely without oversight in pushing this treaty and appear to have set the president up. By listing ratification of CEDAW as "acceptable," the State Department has placed the president in a position strongly opposed by many of his supporters.
So don't be surprised if CEDAW supporters in the Senate force a vote on the treaty before next November. Those who oppose the treaty are over a barrel: Either vote it down because of the objectionable agenda behind it and be tagged in an election year as insensitive to "women's rights" -- or vote for a bad treaty.

Actually, no one wins if the Senate approves CEDAW. In the long run, it could seriously undermine the family and the institution of marriage -- and even religious freedom. It might well take years to recapture what will be lost if the treaty goes forward.

Fortunately, a treaty can't be ratified unless at least two-thirds of the Senate vote in favor of it. That seems unlikely, but a lot turns on what President Bush does now. Let's hope he takes a hard look at CEDAW and realizes that the only "category" it's suitable for is the dustbin of history.

Patrick Fagan is the FitzGerald research fellow in family and cultural issues and Brett D. Schaefer is the Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire