If a note of exasperation sounded in the voice of Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday during his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, perhaps it’s because he had seen this movie only a year before, but from a different vantage point.
In November 2012, Kerry presided over the Foreign Relations Committee when the Senate, failing to muster the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty, kept the United States from joining the United Nations Convention on Persons With Disabilities, to which 138 nations have signed.
The convention is supported by a range of veterans’ groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, disability-rights groups large and small, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In his new role as secretary of state, Kerry said, “I am seeing, first hand, the need for this treaty in ways I never have before. It is not an abstract concept. This is not just a nice thing to do. It really raises the standards for many, and in countries where children with disabilities are warehoused from birth, denied even a birth certificate; they’re not even a person.”
It’s comforting to dismiss the paranoid strain in right-wing ideology as the work of an inconsequential fringe, but one need only take stock of the questions asked of Kerry by committee members to see how deeply such outer-orbit groups as the John Birch Society and the Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation have come to influence U.S. politics.
Last year, ratification of the convention was scuttled by false assertions by such far-right figures as Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Both have deemed the treaty to be a threat to the parents of home-schooled children, and a danger to the very sovereignty of the United States.
American children who wore glasses, Farris said, could, under the convention, be snatched from their homes by the United Nations. (Farris was a bit less hyperbolic in his appearance before the committee earlier this month.) Santorum then claimed that the treaty could prevent him from home-schooling his disabled daughter, Bella, who has a chromosomal disorder.
Anti-choice groups, meanwhile, have seized upon a section of the convention that guarantees equal treatment among disabled people and those who are not disabled on matters pertaining to reproductive health. Article 25 of the convention reads that states that are party to the convention must:
[p]rovide 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 …
In other words, whatever kind of reproductive health benefits and access a nation grants to people who are not disabled, it must also grant to disabled people. That means that in a nation in which a state-sponsored reproductive health program includes abortion or birth control, access to that program must include disabled people. To obscure the fact that groups such as Personhood USA, Concerned Women for America, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) apparently wish to deprive disabled people of the same benefits as the non-disabled, they wrongly claim that section guarantees a right to abortion. Alas, it does not.
What the convention does, ultimately, is assert the kinds of provisions guaranteed under the Americans With Disabilities Act as fundamental human rights. It has no provisions for enforcement, only a commission that can make suggestions to party nations.
Still, that did not stop Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who voted against the convention when it came up for ratification last year, from asking Kerry to refute right-wing claims. The right’s love affair with Rubio ended abruptly when the son of Cuban immigrants embraced a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Then, in July, news broke that, in order to make up for his immigration faux pas, he would be the lead sponsor on the 20-week abortion ban recently introduced in the Senate. But, for some reason, he declined that role, leaving it to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who will likely face at least one Tea Party-allied primary challenger in 2014. (Rubio has signed on to Graham’s 20-week ban bill as a co-sponsor.)
At Thursday’s hearing, Rubio made a point of noting all the email he has received from constituents regarding that pesky section of the UN convention referring to reproductive health, and expressed a desire that an “understanding”—a “RUD” in treaty-speak, for “reservations, understandings or declarations”—be attached to the convention to make clear the U.S. position on Article 25.
Kerry replied that he thought the committee had done a pretty good job crafting an RUD on that issue in 2012 (when Kerry chaired the committee), “by making sure that it didn’t include any language regarding any medical procedure. I think we used the words, ‘medical procedure. … I thought we had threaded that needle very effectively.”
He continued, “But I do want to make it absolutely clear: Nothing in Article 25, or anywhere else in this treaty, creates a right to abortion. That is a domestic legal issue, and nothing in this treaty changes that.”
Rubio, clearly intent on articulating the far right’s greatest hits against the treaty, next moved on to the issue of home-schooling, a false flag hung on a provision in Article 7 of the convention, which states, “In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
In right-wing circles, focus is trained on the phrase “the best interests of the child,” which is misrepresented to the suspicious base as a determination to be made about individual children by the United Nations, which the leery authoritarians assume seeks to indoctrinate children in global-government-run schools.
“U.S. ratification of this treaty will have no impact on parental rights, home-schooling, or any other aspect of U.S. law,” Kerry replied to Rubio. “Now, we added, during the mark-up last year, RUDs—including an understanding proposed by [then] Sen. [Jim] DeMint (R-SC)—to allay the concerns of home-schoolers. I continue to support such an understanding if that will help address their concerns.”
(DeMint resigned from the Senate last year in order to take the helm at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.)
The overarching problem for the right, though, is that matter of national sovereignty—the thing the John Birch Society claims the UN was formed to destroy.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered Kerry, in the chairman’s opening round of questions, an opportunity to refute that notion.
“There is no impact on the sovereignty of the United States,” Kerry said. “In fact, we are exercising our sovereignty right now by doing what the Framers of the Constitution envisioned, which is ratifying a treaty. And the treaty doesn’t have any negative consequences on the United States … joining this treaty doesn’t require a change in U.S. law.”
After the hearing, I spoke briefly with Marca Bristo, president of the United States International Council on Disabilities, an umbrella organization for a number of mainstream groups representing disabled constituencies, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Easter Seals, Inc.
Bristo expressed frustration that the false narrative about abortion continued to present an obstacle to getting the convention ratified. “As a feminist, it’s been so hard to watch something that we’ve worked so hard on … find itself in the middle of this very contentious issue,” Bristo said, “and we’re really hopeful that we’ll be able to get past that.”
The Article 25 language on reproductive and sexual health, Bristo said, is “a non-discrimination provision put in place because people with disabilities, all over the world, are denied the same access to health services of their non-disabled counterparts. That includes women with disabilities, so the only thing that that provision says is: If you offer women mammograms, then you have to let women with disabilities have them.” Or gynecological exams, or birth control—or access to abortion, if the nation that has signed on to the treaty offers abortion to women who are not disabled.
But, Bristo notes, another part of the treaty also aims to protect women from being forced to have abortions they do not want, and to ensure that disabled babies will be permitted to live.
“[A]nother part of the treaty … talks about the right to life,” Bristo explained. “The reason that that language was important, not only to the Vatican and to others who were on the ‘right to life’ side of things, but also to those of us in the disability community, is because in many places around the world women with disabilities are not allowed to give birth.” Some are sterilized, or in some countries women who are found to be carrying a fetus with anomalies are forced to have abortions. In some nations, babies born with disabilities are deprived of food and water until they die, Bristo said. And the treaty forbids all of those things.
“So this is a life-affirming, family-supporting treaty,” said Bristo, who uses a wheelchair. “And all we women with disabilities want is the same treatment as women around the world who aren’t people with disabilities.”