The UN’s General Assembly Special Session on Children began its final set of negotiations at UN headquarters in New York on April 29, 2002. Almost eight months after the conference was supposed to have taken place after being canceled following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The”reproductive health” controversy, which has reared its ugly head at all of the major conferences over the last five years, was at centre stage once again. Pro-lifers at the UN have known for years that “reproductive health services” was simply a euphemism for abortion. However, the connection between the term “reproductive health services” and abortion was explicitly made last June by a Canadian representative, Andras Vamos-Goldman. Vamos-Goldman’s statement was unprecedented and brought negotiations to a halt.

During the recent negotiations, the debate was stalled over paragraphs addressing several contentious issues, including adolescent reproductive health, the family as the basic unit of society, and respect for cultural and religious values, among others.

Paragraph 35, which fell under a section of the document entitled “Promoting healthy lives,” addressed the reproductive health needs of mothers and children. The debate centred around the use of the controversial term “reproductive health services.” As a result of Vamos-Goldman’s admission last year that “reproductive health” includes abortion, several countries were forced to deem the term unacceptable. Despite enormous pressure from European and Canadian delegates, as well as several well-funded pro-abortion lobbying groups and NGOs, these delegations refused to accept any reference to “reproductive health services” in the final document.

After hours of intense negotiations, delegates agreed that the paragraph should focus on the reduction of maternal and neonatal morbidity through increased “affordable access to essential obstetric care, well-equipped and adequately staffed maternal healthcare services, skilled attendance at delivery, emergency obstetric care, effective referral and transport to higher levels of care when necessary, post-partum care and family planning in order to, inter alia, promote safe motherhood.” Language on sex education was rejected in favour of language calling nations to “address effectively, for all individuals of appropriate age, the promotion of their healthy lives, including their reproductive and sexual health.”

Paragraph 15 on the family was also intensely debated, with some delegations supporting language taken from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defining the family as the “basic unit of society,” while others pushed for watered-down family references and the acknowledgement that “various forms of the family exist.” In the end, a compromise was reached, and the paragraph includes strong language on the family as the basic unit of society and its primary role in the upbringing of children, while acknowledging (via agreed language from the Cairo + 5 conference) that various forms of the family do exist.

Several European countries joined Canada in expressing their disappointment in a document that they viewed as weak and unprogressive in advancing children’s rights. Other countries, like the United States, articulated their satisfaction with a document that they felt focused on meeting children’s needs through strengthening their families, increasing access to health care and education, and protecting them from violence and exploitation.

The Canadian Delegation

The Canadian delegation was particularly active at this meeting, playing the role of champion for reproductive rights and freedoms for adolescents. When the EU tried to facilitate negotiations by compromising on reproductive health services language, Canada and several other countries formed a new negotiating block called the “Like-Minded Group” (composed of Canada, New Zealand, Norway and South Korea) in order to counter any potential compromise between the U.S. and the EU.

At a Canadian NGO briefing at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, Senator Landon Pearson, the head of the delegation and the appointed personal representative of Prime Minister Jean Chretien to the Special Session on Children, distributed what she termed a ‘backgrounder” on the negotiating position’ at this meeting. The document was printed on official Senate letterhead and distributed at an official governmental briefing.

The position paper directly attacked various groups at the UN, which Senator Pearson classified as part of the “Religious Right”. She severely criticized the positions that pro-life and pro-family groups advocate at the UN, including that the family is the basic unit of society, the primary role of parents have in the lives of their children, and views on the reproductive health of adolescents.

Pearson’s paper goes further. Commenting on corporal punishment, she writes, “‘Pro-family’ groups believe that parents have the absolute right to choose the most appropriate way to discipline their children and disagree with the CRC’s emphasis on the dignity of the child, which would argue against the use of corporal punishment.”

Pearson appears to draw the conclusion that corporal punishment is contrary to principles laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and that it should not be used in the disciplining of children. In a recent Ontario Court of Appeals case the federal government upheld the right of parents to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline. The court unanimously agreed with the federal government’s position. Pro-family groups rightfully wondered, how then could Senator Pearson present a view contrary to that of Canadian law?

Once again, pro-life groups such as Campaign Life Coalition and Focus on the Family, questioned the Canadian position at the This above case is just another example of why we need to hold the government accountable and make the process of determining the Canadian foreign policy position more transparent and responsive to the electorate.