The Magazine

A Worthwhile U.N. Initiative!

A welcome defense of the disabled from an unlikely organization.

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Can anything good come out of the United Nations? Actually, yes. Little noted in December, the General Assembly adopted a "Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities." If ratified by most member nations, the convention could strengthen protections for many people with disabilities.

This is no trivial matter. In many countries, people with disabilities face significant, sometimes life-threatening discrimination. According to a 1997 study published in the British medical journal Lancet, about 8 percent of all infants who die each year in the Netherlands are euthanized by physicians due to severe illness or disability. North Korea has been accused by defectors of killing disabled newborns, a charge made all the more credible by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof's assertion in 2003 that North Korea "systematically" exiles "mentally retarded and disabled people from the capital, so as not to mar its beauty." The People's Republic of China has legalized certain eugenics policies, while here in the United States, disability-rights activists complain that disabled patients face medical discrimination, such as being pressured into signing do-not-resuscitate orders when they enter the hospital with non-life-threatening conditions.

Of course, it wouldn't be an official action of the United Nations without containing an element of the surreal. Even though the convention focuses on the rights and intrinsic value of people with disabilities, because of the sausage-making process that epitomizes U.N. negotiations, the term "disability" is never defined. "There were two competing approaches to defining disability," Susan Yoshihara told me. Yoshihara is the executive vice president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a conservative nongovernmental organization that participated in the negotiations. "Many representatives wanted an objective medical definition. But a few insisted upon a subjective social definition, which would have based disability on attitudinal barriers that some might face." Unable to reach consensus on the meaning of disability, the U.N. adopted a treaty that does not identify the people it intends to protect.

Still, the convention is a welcome reaffirmation of the principles that are "proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations which recognize the inherent dignity and worth and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." In a world growing increasingly utilitarian, an international declaration unequivocally affirming that human life has intrinsic moral worth regardless of capacities and attributes is most welcome.

Toward this noble end, Article 10 of the convention reaffirms that "every human being has the inherent right to life" and, in principal, requires signatory countries to "take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others." This could be very good news for Dutch infants born with serious health problems or disabilities, as the Dutch parliament is well on the path to formally legalizing eugenic infanticide. If the Low Countries ratify the treaty, as expected, Dutch diplomatic representatives should be asked to justify their "compassionate" policy of allowing the killing of disabled babies in the face of this new international convention requiring the lives of disabled people be protected.

Article 25 seeks to guarantee "the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability." An important, one might say crucial, provision added to Article 25--thanks in large part to C-FAM and other conservative NGOs--is subsection F, which aims to prevent "discriminatory denial of health care or health services or food and fluids on the basis of disability."

If the policies enunciated by Article 25 (F) were embodied in our federal and state laws, the disabled would be provided with badly needed protections against discrimination in health care. As described more fully in these pages previously ("'Futile Care' and Its Friends," July 23, 2001), hospitals around the country are promulgating internal bioethical protocols that empower in-house committees to authorize doctors to refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment--including tube-supplied food and water--based on quality-of-life and resource considerations.

The ratification process begins March 7. Of course, well-intended international conventions like this can end up meaning very little in practice. Countries that do sign the convention may not carry out their obligations. And some countries won't sign on at all.

That latter category will include the United States. Even though Richard T. Miller, the U.S. representative to the negotiations, "warmly" congratulated "all those involved in this monumental and historic process," and despite our having been deeply involved in its negotiation, the United States announced, back in 2003, it would not "become party" to the convention. The stated reason was that the United States already has laws--particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)--that sufficiently protect the rights of disabled people. There are certainly valid reasons for refusing to sign the convention--such as a principled refusal to compromise national sovereignty--but the existence of the ADA is not one of them, since that law omits the explicit protections against medical discrimination that are centerpieces of the U.N. agreement. (The Vatican has stated it, too, will not sign the convention out of fear that vague language about "reproductive health" could promote abortion.)

Regardless of America's nonparticipation, much good should come from the adoption of the convention. First, the agreement creates an international standard of equal rights for people with disabilities. Since many nations care deeply about the views of the "international community," the convention could influence attitudes and legal protections for disabled people around the world. Formal adoption of the convention could also provide a rationale for international court cases being filed to enforce its provisions. Since many nations care deeply about the views of the "international community"--including, we have recently seen, some United States Supreme Court justices--the convention could influence attitudes and legal protections for disabled people around the world.

There is another lesson here. The positive impact that C-FAM and other conservative NGOs had on the terms of the convention--for example, the food and fluids provision--teaches a valuable lesson. Many conservative organizations eschew obtaining NGO status with the United Nations because they loathe internationalism, disdain the U.N., and expect America not to be bound by these agreements.

But such standoffishness is woefully shortsighted. Like it or not, many of the most important social and legal policies of the twenty-first century are going to be materially influenced by international protocols such as this one. These agreements are molded substantially behind the scenes by NGOs--most of which are currently leftist in their political outlooks and relativistic in their social orientation. This makes for a stacked deck. If conservatives hope to influence the moral values of the future, they are going to have to hold their collective noses and get into the game.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.