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The San José Articles

High U.N. officials routinely tell countries around the world there is an international right to abortion that governments must protect. Only a few weeks ago, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Health issued a report to the Secretary General that such a right exists under the “right to health.” The Secretary General endorsed the report. A few days later the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the same thing.

What they say is false. There is no such agreed upon right. No U.N. treaty mentions abortion. And the issue is so unsettled internationally that it could not have possibly achieved international legal status under common practice. Still, they maintain the falsehood.

Sadly, many governments have listened. A few years ago, the high court of Colombia struck down that country’s abortion laws based on the statements of a U.N. committee. Two judges of the Mexican high court also endorsed this view. And there will be others. What’s more, Catholic countries are particularly targeted – and so is undermining the authority of the bishops around the world. 

Enter the San José Articles.

Professor Robert George of Princeton and former U.S. Ambassador Grover Joseph Rees launched the San José Articles yesterday in the press briefing room at U.N. headquarters in New York. They are two of twenty-nine drafters and signers of this new document that some are calling the most important international pro-life document of our time.

In nine short Articles, the document establishes the scientific fact of the unborn child’s humanity; connects the unborn child to the human family; and, therefore, seeks to establish the unborn child’s protection in international law.

       Ambassador Grover Joseph Rees

The document goes on to say, “There exists no right to abortion under international law, either by way of treaty obligation or under customary international law. No United Nations treaty can accurately be cited as establishing or recognizing a right to abortion.”

The Articles point a finger at certain U.N. committees that make such assertions and makes clear: “Treaty monitoring bodies have no authority, either under treaties that created them or under general international law, to interpret these treaties in ways that create new state obligations or that alter the substance of the treaties. Accordingly, any such body that interprets a treaty to include a right to abortion acts beyond its authority and contrary to its mandate.”

Taking a more positive approach, the Articles assert that unborn children are already protected in international law and that governments should invoke existing treaties to protect them from abortion. Footnotes cite numerous treaties that could be invoked for such a purpose including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Political, Cultural and Social Rights.

What the Articles say is as important as who is saying it. Besides Robert George and Joseph Rees, signers include Professor John Finnis of Oxford, Professor John Haldane of St. Andrews, Professor Carter Snead of Notre Dame and UNESCO’s International Committee on Bioethics, Lord David Alton of the British House of Lords, Lord Nicholas Windsor (a member of the Royal Family of Great Britain), Professor Giuseppe Benagiano (former head of the International Association of OB-GYNs), Francisco Tatad (former majority leader of the Philippine Senate), Javier Borrego (former judge of the European Court of Human Rights), and Luca Volonté (member of the Council of Europe and president of the People’s Party/Christian Democrat group at the Council).

          Professor Robert George 

Professor George and Ambassador Rees along with Carter Snead of Notre Dame Law, and Susan Yoshihara of the International Organizations Research Group drafted the document initially. Twenty eventual signers negotiated the document in an intense two-day session in San José, Costa Rica last spring.

Besides the United Nations, over the next four weeks the document is being launched in the British House of Lords, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Italian Parliament, the World Pro-Life Congress in San José, the Canadian National Pro-Life Conference in Calgary, as well as at venues in Madrid, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Washington D. C.

Ambassador Rees said, “When I was (U.S. Ambassador to) Timor I witnessed first-hand a sustained effort by some international civil servants and representatives of foreign NGOs to bully a small developing country into repealing its pro-life laws. The problem is that people on the ground, even government officials, have little with which to refute the extravagant claim that abortion is an internationally recognized human right. The San José Articles are intended to help them fight back.”

Professor George said, “The San José Articles were drafted by a large group of experts in law, medicine, and public policy. The Articles will support and assist those around the world who are coming under pressure from U.N. personnel and others who say falsely that governments are required by international law to repeal domestic laws protecting human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages of development against the violence of abortion.”

The document comes just in time. Right this second, somewhere in the world, a U.N. official or an American human-rights lawyer is telling a government official that his country is treaty bound to legalize abortion. Unless he is up on the day-to-day debate at the United Nations,  and, therefore, knows this is a false assertion, he will be defenseless to argue back. Signers of the San José Articles are counting on this person having the Articles in his desk so he can pull them out and say, “Not so fast. These experts disagree. So who are you to tell us what to do?”

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.