Progressives Hope U.S. Shifts Global Social Policy

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

UNITED NATIONS -- After being shut out for eight years by the Bush White House, social progressives are pressing President-elect Barack Obama to transform the way the United States deals with matters of sex, marriage and religious values in the international arena.

The battle will play out in upcoming U.N. conferences and meetings that set international norms on issues including human rights, public health, family planning and HIV/AIDS. But advocacy groups of varying stripes have already begun pressing the administration to end an era in which faith-based groups blocked funding for abortions in the developing world and helped place conservative values -- including abstinence-only sex education -- at the heart of U.S. health efforts.

"The American people have been stifled by the loud and well-organized views of a minority, legitimized by the White House," said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. "This is a restoration of the majority view, which is that most people want to see the separation of church and state."

Congress is planning to present Obama by March with a bill to restore tens of millions of dollars for family-planning programs to the U.N. Population Fund for the first time in seven years. Congressional liberals, including Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have pressed the Obama team to support a pair of U.N. conventions setting out rights for women and children, and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she would place a far greater emphasis on promoting women's rights "in every country, every region on every continent."

Brian Hook, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations, did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.

Although some liberal advocates said they expect the new administration to pursue a cautious pace, social conservatives who once enjoyed direct access to the White House and to American negotiators in U.N. debates say that they are bracing for a long period in the political wilderness, and that they will devote more attention to alliances with other conservatives, including the Vatican, traditional Catholic countries and Islamic states.

"My forecast is for a tectonic shift," said Patrick F. Fagan, director of the Center for Family and Religion at the Family Research Council. "I suspect Obama wants to turn America into a Sweden."

The U.N. culture wars have played out most sharply in debates in which advocates of sexual and reproductive health rights for women square off against conservatives who believe such rights undermine the sanctity of the family. The Clinton administration supported the landmark 1994 U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development, which endorsed the legitimacy of various forms of families and established a basis for women's reproductive health rights.

Germain said she hopes the Obama administration will reclaim U.S. leadership on the Cairo platform and strive to reach the goal of universal access to reproductive health services in the next five years. "A woman can only exercise empowerment and human rights if she has control over her own body," she said.

Obama has expressed support for some of the initiatives, but aides have indicated he will take a more deliberate approach. His nominee for U.N. ambassador, Susan E. Rice, said in her Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that the she would support the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which liberal supporters view as a global bill of rights for women.

She said the United States would have to undertake a lengthy review of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, even while adding that it was a "shame" the United States stood alone with Somalia in failing to support it.

Obama's first week as president will coincide with the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. In his first days as president, Bill Clinton used the anniversary to lift a Reagan-era prohibition on funding to groups that conduct abortions in the developing word. President Bush used the anniversary to reimpose the bar.

Anticipating a shift in Washington, Europe's most liberal governments have been quietly pressing the United Nations to play a more vocal role in ensuring that abortions can be conducted safely in poor countries. Last month, France sponsored a U.N. General Assembly declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, which is banned in nearly 80 countries. The United States refused to support it, citing concerns that it would override states' rights.

"There is a lot of pent-up energy at the United Nations to do a lot of things that didn't get done over the last eight years over fears that the Bush administration would roll back some language," said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in New York. "I fully expect Obama will be very aggressive on social issues at the United Nations."

Joseph Amon, an epidemiologist who heads the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said the Bush administration has invested generously in battling the global AIDS epidemic but has relied too heavily on the promotion of abstinence. "If we want to have an impact on the AIDS epidemic, we cannot allow moral ideological considerations to trump scientific evidence and human rights," he said.

The Bush administration gave wide latitude to social conservatives on the world stage, backing initiatives at the United Nations -- including a ban on family-planning funds and a global ban on human cloning -- that were more restrictive than U.S. domestic policies. It also blocked a bipartisan congressional agreement to fund U.N. family-planning programs, arguing that U.N. support for such efforts in China violated the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which authorizes the president to bar the use of federal funds for coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.

"All the evidence suggests that there is going to be a reversal in the way in which we approach science-based issues," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who fought to prevent the administration from securing a global ban on therapeutic cloning in 2005. "Science will replace ideology and political expediency as the basis from which you start. At some point, values have to come into the equation and may win, or they may end up with a compromise."

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