A rare bipartisan effort underway in the Senate—to ratify a United Nations treaty on disability rights—has become the latest target of politicians who would like to undermine a woman’s ability to make personal health care decisions.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) guarantees non-discrimination for persons with disabilities worldwide and is consistent with disability rights protections already guaranteed in the United States, most notably the protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said in his opening statement during the hearing:
The United States is a leader in domestic disability rights protection. What joining the Convention does is to provide a critical tool as we work to ensure that American citizens, including our men and women in uniform and our disabled veterans, are free to travel, work, and live abroad.
Ratification of the CRPD by the U.S. would encourage other countries to improve accessibility standards for the estimated one billion disabled persons around the world.
Article 25 of the Convention guarantees persons with disabilities “the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability.”
It goes on to urge nations to “provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality, and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes.”
The Convention guarantees persons with disabilities the right to equal access to all services available to persons without disabilities; it would not otherwise create or revoke the right to any particular medical procedure or service. That is, until Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced language during the recent CRPD hearing defining sexual and reproductive health as not including abortion. Suddenly, a proposed effort to advance persons with disabilities’ equal access to health care included restrictive language that, if passed, would apply only to them.
The CRPD is clearly about non-discrimination and is especially important in the protection of the rights of women with disabilities.
“I think one of the very important things about this treaty is that it recognizes the unique challenges that women face — that women with disabilities face,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NC) during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mark-up of the convention. “In many countries not only are they challenged by their gender, but they’re challenged by the fact that they have disabilities. The treaty’s focus on the particular needs of women with disabilities really mirrors what has happened in the United States. We are a leader in standing up for the rights of all women.”
The Rubio amendment, on the other hand, states:
The United States understands that the phrase ‘sexual and reproductive health’ in Article 25(a) of the Convention does not include abortion, and its use in that article does not create any abortion rights, cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion, and in no way suggests that abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.
To be clear, abortion is part of sexual and reproductive health care. State Department officials agree and said as much during the CRPD hearing. Singling out abortion, as the Rubio amendment aims to do, would set a dangerous precedent for future policy-making in the U.S. What the Rubio amendment truly represents is an agenda on the part of opponents of women’s health to impose restrictions on sexual and reproductive health care everywhere. International treaties are used as blueprints by many developing nations to set national policy. And if the Rubio language were to be adopted by other countries, it could ultimately deny access to lifesaving services for women with disabilities living in extremely vulnerable settings—singling them out relative to all other women.
Disability rights issues have long enjoyed strong bipartisan support (the Americans with Disabilities Act passed 91–6 in the Senate). This latest attempt by Rubio and his colleagues to stigmatize women’s health threatens to upend a strong tradition of U.S. support of which we should be very proud. CRPD ratification is critical to maintaining our leadership role and to eliminating disability discrimination throughout the world.
By a thin margin, the majority ultimately succeeded in passing an alternative to Senator Rubio’s language. This new language, which should not have been necessary, reiterated the nondiscrimination function of the treaty. Though settled for the moment, this debate could easily resurface when the full Senate considers the CRPD—a vote that will demand strong bipartisanship since treaties require a vote of two-thirds of present senators for ratification.
As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said during the hearing, “No senator in my view should use any international treaty to push his or her views on an issue that isn’t part of this treaty.” The use of any unrelated debate to advance ideology and undermine women’s access to health care is troubling, and signals a renewed and bold effort in this country to prioritize taking health care away from women—above all else.
It is worth noting another pattern, which is that some U.S. politicians are totally opposed to anything remotely linked to the United Nations. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) also proposed an amendment that would undercut the convention and put a hold on the legislation, delaying its progress substantially. Sen. Rubio is the author of another piece of pending legislation that could substantially limit U.S. participation in the UN system. Neither senator ultimately supported the convention in the hearing.
These extreme views in opposition to women’s rights and U.S. participation in the global community only succeed in marginalizing a bipartisan effort like the CRPD. In this case, such politicking serves only to harm millions of persons with disabilities around the world, most of all women with disabilities.