Commentary Human Rights

Stoking Fire: Right Rejects Disabilities Treaty on Grounds It Threatens Anti-Choice Movement

Eleanor J. Bader

Why is the right rejecting a treaty that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people with disabilities around the world? Because of women’s reproductive health and the perceived weakening of parental rights and U.S. primacy.

This summer, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Palau, and Singapore ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), bringing to 133 the number of nations that have voted to support the treaty since 2007.

Addressing the world’s 650 million people with disabilities, the convention is the UN’s first human rights proposal of the 21st century. According to its preamble, it “recognizes the inherent dignity and worth and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Furthermore, it opposes discrimination in all areas—education, employment, and the home, among them—and pledges to protect people with disabilities from “torture, cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.” Lastly, it bars medical or scientific experiments on human subjects with disabilities without their informed consent.

Alas, U.S. lawmakers are not clamoring to pass the measure. In fact, many conservatives are working overtime to make sure that the convention remains stalled in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and does not see the light of day in the remaining months of this year’s legislative session. Particularly disappointing to supporters is the fact that although President Obama signed the treaty in 2009, a December 2012 Senate vote failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority required for ratification.

If you’re wondering why the right is rejecting a treaty that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world, look no further than the tried-and-true political bugaboos that typically invigorate religious conservatives and reactionaries: women’s reproductive health and the perceived weakening of parental rights and U.S. primacy. According to a blog post on the website for PolitiChicks, an online talk show started by Saturday Night Live alum turned Tea Party activist Victoria Jackson, “This treaty enshrines abortion rights, homosexual rights, and demands the complete disarmament of all people. … This treaty gives the ultimate authority to determine if a child with special needs will be home schooled, attend a private school, or be required to accept the program offered by the public school.”

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How it does these things is never explained.

PolitiChicks has yet another objection to the CRPD: Since Article 15 of the treaty rejects the use of corporal punishment, the blog post argues that it “means that spanking will be banned entirely in the United States.”

LifeNews.com, an anti-choice website, makes no mention of homosexuality, disarmament, or the spanking of unruly offspring in its critique of the CRPD. Nonetheless, its contributors agree that the convention poses a threat to the anti-choice cause—a “hidden abortion agenda,” according to the headline. As they see it, a provision mandating that “persons with disabilities be provided with the same range, quality, and standard of free or affordable healthcare and programs as provided to other persons, including the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based health programmes” (emphasis added by LifeNews) will push the world’s nations to legalize abortion. Closer to home, they believe the treaty will provide a tool that the pro-choice community could use if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The upshot, they conclude, “is that a treaty aimed at securing the recognition of the dignity of some [people with disabilities] puts at jeopardy the dignity of others [fetuses].”

Additional anti-convention activists, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Pat Toomey (R-PA), alongside the Heritage Foundation and the Home School Legal Defense Association, further object to the convention’s requirement that countries report back to the United Nations every four years on their progress in eradicating discrimination against people with disabilities, charging that it will undermine U.S. sovereignty, and give too much power to unelected UN bureaucrats.

Predictably, CRPD supporters—a wide array of international groups, including the Arab Organization of Disabled People, the World Blind Union, the European Disability Forum, and hundreds of local and national disability rights organizations in the United States—are exasperated by the Senate’s intransigence in ratifying the CRPD. Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, calls the right’s invocation of abortion, parental authority, and sovereignty “absurd” and “not grounded in reality.” “It’s partisan politics,” he told Rewire. “We met with Secretary of State [John] Kerry on July 30th and he underscored the White House commitment to the treaty. Right now, more than 600 organizations around the country are working to build the support we need from the Senate. Traditionally, disability issues have been non-partisan, but the ball is in the Republican’s court to prove that this is still true.”

Robert Schoenfeld, an executive board member of Disabled in Action, is similarly adamant that “the convention has nothing to do with parental rights or abortion.”

“As a matter of fact, it just brings up standards for the rest of the world so that they are near to what we have here under the Americans With Disabilities Act, signed by President [George H.W.] Bush in 1990, and that guarantees that people with disabilities have the same rights to participate in everyday life as everyone else,” he said.

And contrary to PolitiChicks and LifeNews’ assertions, Carmen Gloria Arriagada, the International Council of Women’s permanent representative to the United Nations, says that the convention “simply works to strengthen the rights of people who need access to education, health care, and the workplace.”

“The right wing is manipulating information to stir up opposition” and shift attention away from the many problems facing disabled women, men, and children throughout the world, she said.

Arriagada notes that CRPD opponents would better serve people with disabilities by calling attention to the fact that the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is 3 percent, and that approximately 90 percent of children with disabilities in so-called developing countries never attend school. In addition, individuals with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence or rape and are less likely than their non-disabled peers to receive help from law enforcement or social services. Indeed, despite PolitiChicks’ fear that parents will be restrained from spanking their kids, the reality, says Arriagada, is that violence against children with disabilities is virtually endemic.

Even more sobering, while the United States is seen by much of the world as a leader on disability rights, 23 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act by Congress, only 35 percent of U.S. adults with disabilities are employed, and 10.8 percent continue to live in dire poverty.

If a treaty can raise consciousness and kick-start even modest improvements, doesn’t it make sense to pass it?

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