John Leo
The United Nations has another September problem now, smaller but in many ways more interesting than the race conference disaster in Durban, South Africa. The U.N. is wondering whether it should tinker with some abortion language to keep President Bush from boycotting next week's conference in New York on the rights of children. A roomful of diplomats stayed up half the night last Thursday scratching their heads about whether to fudge or clarify the code phrase "reproductive health services" in the text of the final declaration of the meeting.

They did neither, though the Bush administration wants the phrase out. Critics of Bush say he is wrong to inject abortion politics into the meeting by complaining about "reproductive health services." It is the announced belief of the U.N. personnel, endlessly repeated, that this phrase has nothing to with guaranteeing access to abortion for children as young as 10.

This is odd. At the United Nations, "reproductive health services" has long been understood to include abortion. At a late-night session in June, however, a weary Canadian delegate lapsed into candor and said right out loud, "Of course it includes, and I hate to say the word, but it includes abortion." Many at the session gasped at this revelation, or non-revelation. A Chilean delegate announced: "Never before have we heard that services include abortion."

At the United Nations, controversial proposals are often cloaked in innocuous or broad language, thus avoiding debate and luring delegations into voting for ideas they don't approve or even understand. Code words covering abortion include "sexual rights" and "forced child-bearing." Seemingly harmless U.N. language on "children's rights" undermines parental authority. It may be an international offense to spank and perhaps even to criticize one's children, since "physical or mental violence" is forbidden. "Gender mainstreaming" refers to the idea that gender is a "social construct," meaning that there are no important sexual differences between males and females.

The Beijing conference on women in 1994 called for "gender balance," which Christina Stolba of the Independent Women's Forum translated into normal English as "statistical parity, international quotas." U.N.-speak is also strong on fill-in-the-blank language, such as the International Planned Parenthood's call for the U.N. to remove "obstacles that make young people uncomfortable about themselves." Who knows what that will turn out to mean in 10 or 20 years?

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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