“Why are a group of celibate white men trying to make reproductive decisions for the world”? This is what is being said about the Holy See at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which is occurring in Rio de Janeiro from June 13 to June 22. The goal of the conference is to determine the future of the sustainable-development agenda by addressing its social, economic, and environmental dimensions, with equal attention to each in order to ensure a comprehensive discourse on sustainable development. Reproductive rights-activists launched an extensive campaign against the Holy See, arguing that its fixation on combating references to reproductive rights threatened the success of the Rio+20 outcome document.
The Holy See has taken a strong stance against reproductive-rights language at Rio+20. This is nothing new and not unexpected — it is widely recognized that this terminology implies abortion, and the Catholic Church has a firm position against the termination of the unborn life. Just like the member states at the U.N., the Holy See is defending its positions. Under Article 7 of the Vienna Convention on the Representation of States in their Relations with International Organizations, the Holy See as a Permanent Observer Mission is specifically granted this prerogative. So why is everyone talking about the Holy See?
The second reason lies in the obsessive quality that frequently accompanies the reproductive rights agenda. Reproductive rights activists claim that it is the Holy See that is fixated on these issues. Catholics for Choice, in clear contradiction to the Church, published a brief entitled “The Vatican at Rio+20 — What’s At Stake” in an attempt to “expose” the anti-women activities of the Holy See at the U.N. The brief states, “the Vatican is now seeking to use its privileged position under the banner of the Holy See at the UN to impose its agenda on everyone.” However, even a cursory examination of the Holy See’s positions throughout the Rio+20 process points to the contrary.
What has been ignored is the holistic approach that the Holy See brings to the discussion, guided by a wealth of Catholic social doctrine that is directly applicable to sustainable development. The work of the Holy See on the Rio+20 outcome document in supporting the right to water, the importance of health-care, and the rights of migrants provide just a few examples of the tremendous breadth of its contribution to the goal of achieving sustainable development. It is clear that the defense of the unborn life is but one of the myriad person-centered positions of the Holy See at the U.N.
We find ourselves in a day and age in which the Church is widely perceived as obstructing “progress.” The hostility toward the Holy See at Rio+20 is palpable. Young people crowd the negotiation rooms, particularly those on health and gender, insistent on condemning anyone that stands in the way of reproductive rights. What is missing here is a focus on the importance of cultivating real sustainable development. Young people such as myself are present at Rio+20 because we care about sustainable development. The future we want, to quote the tagline of the conference, is one of solidarity between the developed and developing worlds in which the fundamental needs of each person for water, food, housing, sanitation, health-care, employment, and education are met. We recognize that the Holy See plays a vital role in promoting this future.
— Elyssa Koren is the director of advocacy for the World Youth Alliance.