UN Conference on Women Presses Abortion Debate

Some 6,000 delegates from more than 100 countries gathered at the United Nation’s New York headquarters on Monday, for a two-week, high-level meeting on women’s rights and abortion.

The gathering, held 10 years after the landmark 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing, was largely a reassessment on what countries have done to implement the 150-page platform of action adopted a decade ago to achieve the equality of the sexes.

"Ten years on, women are not only more aware of their rights, they are more able to exercise them," said the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who pointed out the progress and challenges that have emerged over the years.

Annan said there have been improvements in life expectancy, fertility rates, education, and labor rights. But at the same time, there were “new challenges” that hindered the expansion of full equal gender rights.

"Consider the trafficking of women and children, an odious but increasingly common practice. Or the terrifying growth of HIV/AIDS among women, especially young women,” said Annan.

At the opening session, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women said the delegates will focus on overcoming roadblocks to equality in twelve areas, including health, education, employment, political participation and human rights

“I would urge the entire international community to remember that promoting gender equality is not only women's responsibility — it is the responsibility of all of us," said Annan.

Then central topic of debate, however, is likely to be on abortion – specifically whether the wording in the Beijing platform may be interpreted as legalizing abortion as a human right.

The commission drafted a short declaration to reaffirm the Beijing platform, but was unable to adopt it by consensus before Monday’s opening session because of the United States’ reservations on the abortion language.

The U.S. instead presented an amendment to the draft declaration that would reaffirm the Beijing platform and declaration, but only "while reaffirming that they do not create any new international human rights, and that they do not include the right to abortion," according to the text obtained by The Associated Press.

The abortion debate began in the U.N. at a 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo. At the conference, delegates approved a platform recognizing that abortion is a public health issue that must be dealt with. The Beijing meeting on women’s rights went further by asking governments not to punish women for having abortions.

The Beijing platform was stated for the first time that women have the right to “decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality ... free of coercion, discrimination and violence."

Negotiations on the Beijing platform and the amendment are expected to continue throughout the next two weeks.