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U.S. Drops Abortion Issue at U.N. Conference

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page A13

UNITED NATIONS, March 4 -- The Bush administration abandoned an antiabortion initiative on Friday in the face of overwhelming opposition at a U.N. conference on women's rights.

The move came at a critical stage in the two-week meeting of 130 countries and 6,000 representatives of women's rights groups, who gathered to assess women's progress in the decade after a 1995 summit on women in Beijing. It paved the way for the unanimous adoption of a declaration reaffirming support for a 150-page platform of action for achieving women's equality that was adopted in Beijing.

The Bush administration had pressed governments throughout the past week to support an amendment to the declaration stating that no new human rights, including the right to abortion, had been recognized at the Beijing summit.

The United States had offered the amendment in response to concerns by domestic critics of abortion who have said that women's rights groups and a U.N. women's rights body had used the Beijing plan to promote the procedure.

Ellen Sauerbrey, head of the U.S. delegation, had argued that the amendment was critical to counter efforts by private organizations to interpret the Beijing plan as recognizing that individuals had the right to an abortion. But the initiative, which was backed only by the Vatican, faced overwhelming opposition from representatives of African, Asian, European and Latin American nations.

Sauerbrey declared victory as she told reporters Friday that the United States was scrapping the initiative. She said representatives of many nations, including conference chairwoman Kyung-wha Kang of South Korea, had privately assured the United States that the Beijing plan did not create a right to an abortion.

"We have heard from countries that our interpretation is their interpretation," Sauerbrey said. "So the amendment, we recognize, is really redundant, but it has accomplished its goals. We will be withdrawing the amendment and we will be joining consensus today on the declaration."

Sauerbrey was applauded and booed by activists on both sides of the debate at the end of an address to the conference that highlighted U.S. opposition to abortion and promoted abstinence, fidelity and condom use. Earlier in the week, Sauerbrey had boasted that the United States was the world's largest provider of condoms.

"The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action express important political goals," Sauerbrey said. "We understand these documents constitute an important policy framework that does not create international legal rights or legally binding obligations on states under international law."

Many delegates and women's rights groups had charged the Bush administration with trying to "hijack" the conference to appease the president's conservative base.

"Ideology seems to be paramount," said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. But rights groups welcomed the withdrawal of the amendment, saying it would allow the conference to focus for the remaining week on practical ways to improve conditions for women.

"We welcome the U.S. decision to join the international consensus and affirm that women's rights are human rights," said Alexandra Arriaga of Amnesty International. "What was clear was that the United States had a very specific agenda it brought to the U.N. and that the world unanimously rejected an effort to hijack the commission."


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