In this interview with ZENIT, Susan Yoshihara of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), discusses a recently released document she co-authored with Douglas Sylva titled “Rights by Stealth.” The white paper explains how tactics by U.N. treaty bodies are being used to promote the legalization of abortion without the awareness or consensus of member states.
Q: In your white paper, “Rights by Stealth,” you raise the issue of how nongovernmental organizations, through the use of “treaty bodies,” have been successful at introducing abortion as a human right. What is a treaty body and how are they able to function under the U.N. system?
Yoshihara: U.N. human rights treaty bodies are groups of unelected, unaccountable bureaucratic officials before whom U.N. member states must appear every few years and report on how they are implementing the various U.N. human rights treaties. They have no enforcement mechanisms, and the members act in their personal capacity with no oversight or accountability to a single member state.
Half of the treaty body that monitors the 1979 Women’s Convention is made up of nongovernmental representatives, mostly advocating abortion rights. Even though not a single U.N. human rights treaty mentions abortion, the treaty bodies have pressured 93 nations 122 times to legalize abortion in the last decade. Last year, Colombia legalized abortion, citing statements by U.N. human rights treaty bodies in support of its decision.
Q: You describe treaty bodies as “changing soft norms into hard laws.” How does this happen without ratification by member states?
Yoshihara: “Soft norms” become “hard law” simply getting repeated over and over by the right people, especially so-called high legal authorities. If repeated often enough, the theory goes, it will become customary international law — “hard law” — that all nations will be legally obligated to observe regardless of whether or not they are parties to any specific treaties.
This theory is rejected by traditional legal scholars, but is promoted by various law professors and social scientists in many prominent institutions of higher learning today.
The way treaty bodies promote abortion rights is by reinterpreting — misinterpreting, that is — existing rights in negotiated U.N. documents to include abortion and then repeating these misinterpretations in their country reports. They find abortion rights in the right to life, since “unsafe” abortion might threaten women’s lives, the right to equality before courts, since women might be imprisoned for illegal abortion, the right to freedom of movement to travel abroad for an abortion, privacy, freedom of expression, freedom from torture, and so on.
Q: What are the philosophical underpinnings motivating those who are using treaty bodies to change both the U.N. rights treaties and international law?
Yoshihara: The philosophical underpinning of the abortion rights movement is largely radical feminism. This version of feminism asserts that men and women are locked in a class struggle and that abortion rights are fundamental to empowering women in that fight.
Feminist legal theory emerged from the critical legal studies movement of 1960s and 1970s academia. Now defunct, this school asserted that law is not just, but is only a tool of the rich and powerful that oppresses the weak.
What is ironic is that the reproductive rights agenda is highly elitist, despite the rhetoric. They enjoy the backing of elite academic institutions and massive funding from the most powerful foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller and Gates.
But they view with envy the grass-roots support of the American pro-life movement. Their inability to change hearts and minds is arguably why they rely on the complex inner workings of bureaucracies to advance their agenda.
Q: How does this affect weaker nations, such as Colombia and other Latin American countries, who are opposed to legalizing abortion in their own countries?
Yoshihara: U.N. documents are abused by U.N. agencies, treaty bodies and domestic abortion activists to fool or coerce governments to change their laws on abortion.
In 2005, the Human Rights Committee “found” Peru in violation of its obligations because of its laws protecting the unborn, and the committee told Peru it had committed “cruel and inhuman treatment” against a young woman who could not get an abortion.
These “findings” were then used to convince Colombian officials that they had to legalize abortion in order to abide by the treaties. Unfortunately, the Colombia high court believed it and legalized abortion last year.
And it’s not just small states that get coerced in this way. The U.S. Supreme Court cited an amicus brief in the case of Lawrence vs. Texas, overturning sodomy laws that referred to treaty body authority over U.S. law.
Q: Does the Holy See’s strong objection to abortion have anything to do with movements seeking to eject them as a permanent observer at the United Nations?
Yoshihara: For various reasons, advocates for abortion as a human right view religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, as one of their most formidable barriers to reaching their goal. Both sides of the debate credit Pope John Paul II with thwarting the near miss or near victory at Cairo in 1994.
For this very practical reason, and also because aggressive secularism informs the work of various members of the movement, undermining the Church is essential.
The longtime president of Catholics for a Free Choice [CFFC] was in charge of the agenda at the most recent conference for the movement. For years, CFFC has run a flagging campaign to eject the Holy See from its permanent observer status at the U.N.
Member states resoundingly support the Holy See’s status, over the objections of feminists. In fact, it could be said that one result of CFFC’s “See Change” campaign is that the Holy See’s status has been upgraded by unanimous consent of the General Assembly.
Q: Do you see this methodology being used in other areas of law?
Yoshihara: Misinterpretation of the articles of the treaties and heavy influence of powerful nongovernmental organizations on bureaucracies responsible for agenda setting takes place at the European Union and other regional bodies as well. Nor is it isolated to human rights or international social policy.
The effect of this agenda is that by abusing the treaties and overstepping their mandates, treaty bodies erode the consent upon which international law rests. States who negotiated and ratified the treaties do not know from year to year what their obligations are under the conventions. The very concept of international obligation is undermined.
To reverse the trend, states can push back and take to task the unaccountable, unelected bureaucracies. In the case of abortion, states can use the U.N. treaties to protect national laws that promote genuine human rights.
Even abortion advocates admit that the treaties provide the basis for states to assert the right to life of the unborn. They certainly support national laws that do so. National leaders just need to say so.