Rights of the disabled, the United States and the Holy See

It seems odd that any nation would reject an international treaty titled, “United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” But, that’s what happened when the ratification of the UNCRPD failed to receive the required two-thirds approval in the U.S. Senate in early December.

In a Dec. 4 press release, treaty supporter Human Rights Watch said that by ratifying the treaty the United States would have had an opportunity to strengthen its leadership on the rights of people with disabilities. Critics of the treaty claimed that ratification by the U.S. would threaten our sovereignty and that it would prevent Americans from homeschooling their disabled children.

What could be so problematic about an international treaty that aims to protect and promote the rights of the disabled? Protecting the most vulnerable among us is a social responsibility of paramount importance for Catholics, so was the UncrPd’s failure to pass the Senate good or bad?

Everyone except the unborn

Sounds bites from both sides of the treaty debate seem rather short on substance and long on politicking.

The Holy See’s statement concerning the treaty offers more insight.

Since the beginning of its development, the Holy See’s UN delegation had been an active participant in UNCRPD negotiations. Vatican diplomats noted several promising aspects to the treaty:

“While there are many helpful articles in the [UNCRPD], including those that address education and the very important role of the home and the family, surely the living heart of this document lies in its reaffirmation of the right to life. For far too long, and by far too many, the lives of people with disabilities have been undervalued or thought to be of a diminished dignity and worth. My delegation worked assiduously to make the text a basis upon which to reverse that assumption and to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights by people with disabilities.”

Yet, ultimately, the Holy See was unable to ratify the UNCRPD because it excluded the most vulnerable class of people with disabilities: the unborn.

To be clear, nowhere in the UNCRPD does it say: “These rights apply to everyone except the unborn.” Article 25, however, refers to “sexual and reproductive health” and in some countries this term includes abortion or access to abortion.

Predicament for Church

As Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at the Catholic Family and Human Institute notes, the Catholic Church and others are in the unfortunate predicament of having to oppose the treaty “because of the vast disparity between our aspirations for this treaty on one hand, and the limitations of its text and deep flaws in the U.N. system in which it will be interpreted.”

At stake are two conflicting understandings of rights, the dignity of the human person, and human life — one based in secular humanism and the other grounded in the natural law. When phrases and text are interpreted from these two opposing world views, they can create vastly different outcomes.

The treaty’s mention of “sexual and reproductive health” is not the only problematic phrase. “Family planning services” and “regulation of fertility” can now mean distribution of free oral contraception and condoms with little education on more sustainable, natural methods; “marriage” can now apply to a union between two people of the same sex; and, “gender” can now be dubiously interpreted based on claims that sexual identity can be adapted indefinitely for new and different purposes.

The Holy See’s support for article 18 on “liberty of movement and nationality,” and for article 23 on “respect for home and the family,” is based on an interpretation that these are ways to “safeguard the primary and inalienable rights of parents.” Unfortunately, article 7 has the potential to undermine these rights, excluding parents and guardians from the decision-making process and giving the state primary authority over their disabled child: “State Parties shall ensure that children with disabilities have the right to express their views freely on all matters affecting them…”

Some well-intentioned Catholics will wonder, “If the rights of persons with disabilities are so important, can’t the UNCRPD be good enough for now?” Yet, if the UNCRPD cannot even ensure a disabled person has a right to be born, the human rights that it does recognize do very little good for him or her.

As marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher said, “A comity that is bought by surrendering principle is submission, not comity at all.” International treaties should reflect a consistent ethic of life from conception to natural death — especially for those with disabilities who continue to be pushed to the margins of society. Justice demands that we never settle for less.

Jessica Zittlow is communications associate with the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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