On December 4, 2012 the U.S. Senate narrowly voted not to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty that has been signed by 154 nations (including the United States) and ratified by 126 of those nations. The treaty describes the precarious position of persons with disabilities across the globe, and is an agreement to support equal rights for disabled people. Article 10 reads, "... Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others."
Despite widespread support for the treaty from over 300 organizations including disability rights and veterans groups, and some Republican leaders including Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Dole, both disabled American veterans, only eight Republicans joined the Senate Democrats to vote for ratification of the treaty. The ratification failed by five votes. In the wake of the vote, numerous media reports drew a connection between Christian conservatives and the defeat. For instance, The Guardian's headline read "Christian right enforces GOP senators' vote against UN disabilities treaty." Former Senator (and conservative Christian) Rick Santorum's vocal opposition lent weight to these analyses. Other Christian organizations including Joni and Friends, a Christian outreach group for disabled people, and numerous right-to-life groups, opposed the treaty.
Although opponents to the treaty voiced concerns about United States sovereignty and parental rights, reproductive rights were a central issue for many. The following provision in the treaty, found in Article 25, was controversial: "...State parties shall ... 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." Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, argued, "We should be clear. The Disabilities treaty includes 'reproductive health' as a category of nondiscrimination and not as a right. But this should not allay the fears of pro-life lawmakers or make them think that this treaty will not be used to advance a right to abortion." Santorum went further, bringing his daughter Belle (who has a genetic disorder known as Trisomy 18) to a press conference, and arguing in print that the treaty might subject her to death against the will of her parents.
Supporters of the treaty, including Senator John Kerry, argued that because its language was modeled after the United States' own Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, such concerns were overblown. And some pro-life organizations do not see the treaty's language on reproductive care as problematic; the National Right to Life Committee's statement from 2006 notes, "In order to help prevent any such misinterpretation, the United States made the following clarifying statement when the Ad Hoc Committee adopted the treaty: 'The United States understands that the phrase reproductive health does not include abortion, and its use in paragraph 25 (a) does not create any abortion rights, and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion.'"
Largely unreported in the aftermath of the defeat was the support of Christian groups for the treaty. The United Church of Christ, for example, issued a statement on December 10 that read in part, "None other than the inclusive ministry of Jesus Christ, who taught forthrightly of God's priority invitation to the 'lame, maimed and blind' (Luke 14), compels us, as leaders of an accessible-to-all Christian denomination of 5,100 U.S. congregations, to speak as one faithful voice against the outrageous political posturing that has led to this bewildering fiasco."
One clear goal of conservative Christians opposed to this treaty is to prevent the abortion of fetuses with disabilities; this is laudable. The question that Santorum et al are failing to ask, however, is whether both in the United States and around the world, such abortions would be less common if persons with disabilities were legally, educationally, and religiously equal to their non-disabled peers. Conservatives' emphasis on individual rights, and Christian concerns for the "least of these" have great potential to uphold the rights and transform the lives of persons with disabilities, both in the United States and abroad, but the recent rhetoric around this treaty ignored that potential.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he will reintroduce the bill to the next Congress; perhaps forthcoming debate over the treaty will be more fruitful.
Abrams, Jim, "UN Disability Treaty Faces Republican Opposition," The Huffington Post, November 26, 2012.
Cohen, Nancy L, "Christian right enforces GOP senators' vote against UN disabilities treaty," The Guardian, December 6, 2012.
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2006.
Head, Jeanne, "Pro-Life Forces Had Significant Impact on Text of the UN Disabilities Treaty," National Right to Life News, September 2006, Volume 3, Issue 9.
Steinhauer, Jennifer, "Dole Appears, but G.O.P. Rejects a Disabilities Treaty," The New York Times, December 4, 2012.
Santorum, Rick, "This Treaty Crushes U.S. Sovereignty," WND, December 2, 2012.
Yoshihara, Susan, "Sovereignty Caucus Briefing on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities," Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, September 11, 2012.
Courtney Wilder, Ph.D., is a past Junior Fellow of the Martin Marty Center, and currently teaches at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. Her work focuses on Paul Tillich and disability theology.