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The Usual Cat Fight
The U.N. women's conference wasn't all about abortion, but it's the only thing that enticed the media.


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Myrna Blyth

The only thing we heard about the Beijing Plus Ten Women’s Conference at the U.N.–and we didn’t hear much–was that America, once again, was mixing it up and at odds with the rest of the world about “reproductive rights.”

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And it’s true that during the first week the U.S. delegation did introduce an amendment to a declaration that reaffirmed the platform of action that had been adopted ten years ago in Beijing. What our delegation was trying to do was make sure that the Beijing platform would not be interpreted as creating any new internationally recognized human rights, including the right to abortion.

Sure, that got what little press there was, even though Ellen Sauerbrey, the head of our delegation, said Washington’s position is that countries should be free to decide whether or not abortion should be legal. But the Bush administration does not believe reproductive health, as described in the Beijing platform, necessarily means the right to abortion.

Ultimately the U.S. withdrew its amendment. Why? According to groups opposed to our position: because we were “isolated.” According to Ambassador Sauerbrey: because many delegates agreed with us that Beijing had not created any new internationally recognized human rights. Was it a win-win or a lose-lose? Or is it a triumph of diplomacy that one can decide either interpretation (or both) are correct?

What wasn’t covered much were the two other resolutions the United States offered, including one on women’s entrepreneurship and one on the trafficking of women. The resolution on entrepreneurship got totally muddied when Cuba and South Africa both added amendments that had little to do with the resolution’s original intent. South Africa wanted to push the entrepreneurship resolution right back into the abortion debate by adding an amendment that stated the neglect of women’s reproductive rights severely limits their opportunities in public and private life. While Cuba, not surprisingly, included an amendment on the downside of globalization. Ultimately the United States decided not to endorse such a “kitchen sink” amendment and we withdrew our support.

But the resolution on trafficking was a clear victory for our side because it asks nations to raise awareness of the consequences of sex trafficking, including its links to prostitution. Our pals in Germany and the Netherlands were not too keen on agreeing to that since prostitution is legal in both those countries. Funny, we didn’t hear a feminist or media outcry about their reservations. In fact, Kyung-wha Kang, head of the Commission on the Status of Women, which organized the meeting, confided privately that without the controversy about abortion and the criticism of the United States, the meeting might not have gotten any notice at all!

At the same time that the New York meeting was going on the delegations of women from Iraq and Afghanistan were also involved in events in Washington. First of all, they took part in a conference First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted for Middle Eastern women on International Women’s Day, which got practically no press attention at all. While later that same day, Secretary Rice spoke quite openly, and movingly, to these delegates both about the democratic process and about her own life. She said,

When I think about the founding fathers of America, I think about wonderful, insightful men, but indeed, flawed men like Thomas Jefferson, a man who wrote the wonderful words, “The God that gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” but still owned slaves. These were flawed men, but they were men who gave us institutions that were capable of correcting those flaws. And so, throughout the two-plus centuries of America’s history, it has been a history of people struggling to correct those flaws, to correct America’s birth defect of slavery, a birth defect that made my ancestors three-fifths of a man at America’s birth, to correct the defect that women were not full citizens and not allowed to vote until early in the last century, to correct these many defects that led even to a time when I was a child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama where there was separation of the races, so that I did not go to school with white children until my parents and I moved to Denver, Colorado when I was in tenth grade. That’s what the struggle has been like in America. But do you know what we’ve learned from that struggle? We’ve learned that the walls and the difficulties and the imperfections break down piece by piece at the hand of individuals who are willing to take a risk.

At the same time, Rice praised the risk-taking women of Afghanistan and Iraq, who had voted in their countries’ elections and were now serving as part of the government. And they are truly taking risks–like the Iraqi woman minister who confided, at an event I attended earlier in the week, that she prays every day before she leaves her home because she is not sure she will return. But she still goes out to do her job.

Also in Washington during the week, USAID announced a $2.5 million grant to the Afghanistan ministry of women’s affairs. It was accepted by Dr. Mosooda Jalal, minister of women’s affairs, who had previously run for president of Afghanistan. USAID has already given $50 million to support women’s issue in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. “You know,” Ellen Sauerbrey told me, “when it comes to helping women, to encouraging women’s economic empowerment, to fight trafficking in women, to supporting HIV-AIDS programs, America does more than any other country.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to get some credit from women’s groups and the world media for all that? And for them to remember, as well, it is not a cat fight when women disagree and debate and have different views on how to right wrongs and be of greatest help to women, but rather a vital part of the democratic process.

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.



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