Hungarian woman shows our man how to stand up and be counted

OUR minister of state with responsibility for equality matters, Frank Fahey, was put through the wringer last week when he updated the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on Ireland’s progress in the field of women’s rights.

The committee vice-chairperson, Silvia Pimentel, asked Mr Fahey why, in Ireland, "women's health remains jeopardised by the lack of availability of abortion."

Ms Pimentel claimed there was "widespread public support for liberalisation of abortion." The alternative to doing so, she warned, would be continued "suffering and risk for large numbers of women."

Ireland has ratified the CEDAW convention and, as a result, is required to give an account of its progress in the area of women's rights from time to time.

This process also involves the preparation of 'shadow reports' by various non-governmental organisations and these are used in the examination of our Government representatives by the UN committee.

Many of CEDAW's objectives, such as the increased participation of women in politics and the improvement of legitimate healthcare for women, are laudable. But there is a problem with Article 12.1 of the convention, which says women have a right to "access to healthcare services, including those related to family planning."

This is being interpreted to include abortion. The original wording of the treaty said nothing about abortion. But, as so often happens, the people implementing the treaty are, in hurling parlance, 'stealing a yard.'

Over the past eight years, the UN and the CEDAW committee have interpreted Article 12.1 to include abortion-inducing drugs and abortion.

Nobody from Ireland, certainly not Frank Fahey, has bothered to object. Fahey could at least have corrected the dubious claims by Ms Pimentel and her committee about public support for abortion or the 'risks' associated with our laws.

He could have pointed out that, far from exposing women to risk, our laws on abortion appear to have a protective effect. Despite not having abortion, our maternal mortality rates are the lowest in the world.

Fahey might have paid tribute here to our medical community who know how to distinguish between medical treatment and abortion, and who are skilled in the care of two patients, not one.

Fahey could have explained that in Ireland our constitution regards the unborn child as a human being to be protected, not as a barrier to women's rights. Oh, and he could have said that the UN had no business interfering with Ireland's laws on abortion.

The minister said none of these things. But, in a bizarre twist, somebody else spoke up. "One thing that is invisible and lost in the debate is that abortion is bad for women," said Krisztina Morvai, the Hungarian CEDAW commissioner.

"No woman actually wants to have an abortion," she continued. "We have this illusion that women have free choices. But abortion is a terribly damaging thing psychologically, spiritually and physically."

Ms Morvai called for a greater focus on the responsibility of men for the number of abortions, having earlier on cited a study which showed that the majority of women choosing abortion did so because their partners did not support their pregnancy.

Morvai hoped that, one day, "abortion will be the past," and that the procedure would be considered "like torture in the field of human rights."

We can only imagine the shock which Ms Morvai's comments must have generated among her fellow committee members. When trying to push an agenda, the most important thing is to keep the illusion of consensus. All sensible people must appear to think the same.

If Ms Morvai represents what Donald Rumsfeld calls 'New Europe', then let's have more of it. 'Douze points' for the courageous and clear-thinking Hungarian woman. 'Nul points' for her colleagues and for the spineless Irish minister.

While Ms Morvai's intervention was welcome, it is troubling to see the UN undermining, instead of supporting, authentic human rights.

But it's not unusual. Last year, the UN's Human Rights Committee reviewed Poland's compliance with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and demanded a liberalisation of Poland's abortion laws.

They made a similar demand of Morocco the previous week. Back in 2001 they called for more abortion in Guatemala. And in July 2000 they expressed concern about Ireland's restrictive laws.

Officially, neither the UN nor the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights promotes abortion. But the people in charge spend a lot of time talking about it just the same.

THESE UN bodies may be influential, but some of their recommendations are bizarre, even by their own liberal standards. On one occasion, CEDAW objected to Belarus having a celebration of Mother's Day presumably it sees motherhood as an obstacle to women's fulfilment.

Last January, CEDAW's 'expert' from Jamaica, Glenda Simms, attacked Italy for unfairly restricting immigrant women from practising prostitution: "While prostitution on the street is against the law, it is legal in private homes.

"Many immigrants do not have private homes. Is that not discrimination based on ethnicity and race in terms of prostitution laws?" she asked.

These UN committees do manage to give the appearance of international legality to certain agendas that are highly controversial.

No doubt, their role is greatly appreciated by abortion providers and other individuals campaigning to change laws in individual nation states. But do we really want the UN telling us what laws we should have on matters fundamentally affecting the welfare of our society?

In some countries, the member states stand up for their values. For example, last November the Maltese government rejected efforts by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to get liberalised abortion in Malta.

There was no hedging, á la Frank Fahey. "We consider that abortion is in complete contradiction with one of the main tenets of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely that the best interests of children are paramount," observed the head of the Maltese prime minister's secretariat.

By comparison, there wasn't a peep out of Frank Fahey last Wednesday. He confined himself to telling the UN committee that Ireland wouldn't be holding another referendum on abortion.

He noted that the convention had previously called for "national dialogue" on abortion and he observed that there were "few issues on which there has been greater national dialogue."

But if you read the entirety of the Fahey speech, it reveals something worse than a failure to explain Ireland's law on abortion. There is an element of collusion with those who would seek to dismantle our law.

He described as "excellent pieces of work" the shadow reports prepared by the Irish Family Planning Association, the Human Rights Commission and others. He dissented not one whit from their recommendations to legalise abortion.

And he singled out for special tribute the Women's Human Rights Alliance report which, amazingly, calls for the eventual repeal of all Irish laws prohibiting abortion. Believe it or not, our Government funded this report.

It is rather sad that we have a minister who lacks either the interest or the stomach to make a convincing case for Irish laws on an issue as important as abortion. It is even worse when he funds groups who are out to undermine the mandate given by the people in our constitution.

With representation like this, the UN committees undoubtedly feel they don't have to do very much to enforce their agenda in Ireland. Simply bide their time.

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