U.S. stands alone

Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 6:07 p.m.

Once again, the U.S. stands alone in its stance on an important international agreement. Last month, it was the lone dissenter in a United Nations conference in Bangkok upholding an earlier agreement on family planning.

Domestic politics were the cause. The Bush administration threw a bone to its anti-abortion constituency while trying to minimize the reaction against the abortion-rights supporters in this country.

The administration hasn't done much about abortion on the home front, but it thinks it can throw its weight around internationally without adverse political consequences in the U.S.

The U.S. delegation insisted that the earlier agreement, signed by a previous administration in Cairo in 1994, promotes abortion because it contains language supporting "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights." In fact, the Cairo agreement specifically states that, "In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning."

Assistant Secretary of State Eugene Dewey, who headed the U.S. delegation in Bangkok, attempted unsuccessfully to insert a "general reservation" denouncing abortion.

"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," Dewey argued. His delegation also objected to any references to adolescents in a section dealing with reproductive rights, saying it promoted sexual activity among youngsters.

For the U.S. government to insist on protecting "innocent life from conception to natural death" is a huge overextension of national policy. The administration might not like it, but abortion rights are the law of the land. For the administration to force its will on other countries when it doesn't have the support of its own people is hypocritical.

It's also dangerous. The twin dangers of overpopulation and the spread of AIDS are what the Bangkok conference should have been most concerned with. Instead, virtually the entire time was spent in the fruitless debate over revising the language of the Cairo agreement.

In the end, the U.S. amendments were defeated by votes of 31-1 and 32-1. The U.S. couldn't even find support among sexually conservative Muslim and Catholic nations.

One Asian diplomat in Bangkok told The New York Times: "People hoped to discuss very practical, service-oriented things: how to develop services to deal with sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS, how to do sex education. People's frustration was that we're not able to discuss what we really want to discuss, because the U.S. insists on renegotiating key Cairo concepts which we are not willing to do."

This isn't the first time this administration has hobbled international efforts to deal with such issues. Congress appropriated $34 million for the United Nations Population fund, but the administration blocked it from reaching its destination, even though it wouldn't have been used to pay for abortions.

If the U.S. is to lead the world, it will need more than the force of arms. It must rise above the temptation to grandstand for domestic audiences while ignoring some of the world's most serious problems. And that means working with - not against - other nations in trying to solve common problems.

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