Are Americans ready to eliminate Mothers Day, legalize prostitution and force unwilling doctors to perform abortions? They had better be, because Democratic Senators Joseph Biden (Del.) and Barbara Boxer (Calf.) have recently made U.S. recognition of the innocuous-sounding United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) a top priority.

Signed by the United States in 1979 during the Carter administration but never ratified by a vote of the Senate, CEDAW is not American law, but is recognized by most of the world (Canada ratified it at the end of 1981). While feminists in the U.S. have occasionally pushed for ratification, it has generally been a low-priority issue. That changed earlier this year, however, when the State Department updated CEDAW’s status to “Category 3” – meaning low-priority, but nonetheless acceptable and recommended for ratification. Pia de Solenni, a policy analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Family Research Council, told The Interim she is “concerned that pro-ratification forces are gaining ground,” and predicted CEDAW would pass the Senate if a vote were held tomorrow. “The next round of Senate elections are going to be critical if we wish to preserve our sovereignty,” said de Solenni.

Critics of CEDAW argue it is merely a tool of radical feminists to enact policies that would never be endorsed at the ballot box. The text of CEDAW calls on states to modify “the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of all practices which are based on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

In recent years, the CEDAW Committee has provided ammunition for CEDAW’s critics through a number of bizarre pronouncements. Germany and China were called on to fully legalize prostitution; Slovakia was criticized for having less than 30 per cent of children under the age of three in formal day care; Libya was told to “reinterpret the Koran” to comply with the treaty; Belarus was slammed for celebrating Mothers Day, as such a practice encourages “sex-role stereotypes.” More ominously, a report to Croatia ruled that “the refusal, by some hospitals, to provide abortions on the basis of conscientious objections of doctors’ (constitutes) an infringement of women’s reproductive rights.”

De Solenni sees an irony in the debate. “If you look at some of the countries that have ratified CEDAW – Iraq, Nigeria, and Peru – these are the same countries that allow death by stoning, female circumcision, and forced sterilizations. That’s hardly an achievement of women’s rights.” In a country like the United States that is rife with lawyers and activist judges, de Solenni worries CEDAW will be used to enforce any number of feminist initiatives. “The way it’s worded,” she added, “any reservations we would have to the treaty would be null and void.” Indeed, Article 28:2 reads: “A reservation incompatible with the object and purpose of the present convention shall not be permitted.”