Helping the Disabled: Fact and Fiction

Recall the crippled man in scripture who lay by the Bethesda pool for thirty-eight years and no one, not a single person, helped him into the pool when the water was troubled by the angel. That is what it is like for most disabled people around this world, most especially in poor countries. No one is there to help them.

Dozens of countries have ratified a U.N. treaty to assist persons with disabilities. This treaty came up for a vote in the U.S. Senate last week and was defeated. Though it garnered sixty-one votes, it still fell five votes short of the required two-thirds for treaty ratification.

Senate sponsor John Kerry said it was the saddest day of his twenty-eight years in the senate. He was incredulous that thirty-eight Republicans voted against it even though a feeble Senator Bob Dole, crippled by action in World War II, was wheeled out onto the floor during voting.

This bill was defeated even though it had what seemed like the unanimous and enthusiastic support of all the disabilities groups and veteran’s groups who increasingly represent members who are disabled from war. If you went up to Capitol Hill in the days prior to the vote, there was practically a gridlock of canes and wheelchairs.

Proponents said the treaty would help wounded warriors and other disabled Americans when they traveled overseas. U.S. ratification, they claimed, would raise the rest of the world not just to the standards of the U.N. treaty but would raise the rest of the world up to the much higher standard of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So how could something so seemingly wonderful and needed end in defeat?

First, there was the life issue. This was the first hard-law binding treaty that includes the term “reproductive health.” It appears benignly in the document as a category of nondiscrimination, which means that if a country provides reproductive healthcare to its citizens, it must include people with disabilities. As the language exists, it would create no new rights and no right to abortion.

There is, however, no truly benign language in U.N. documents because U.N. documents come under the control of U.N. committees that have a nasty habit of reinterpreting them. For instance, the CEDAW treaty on women’s rights is silent on abortion and does not even mention reproductive health. Yet its overseeing committee has decreed abortion a binding part of the treaty. So even benign language in the disabilities treaty is a threat to unborn children.

Second, homeschoolers were upset about the treaty because it has been used in New Zealand to restrict homeschooling of disabled children.

Third, conservatives in general oppose U.N. treaties of any kind because they believe it is a bad idea to get involved in the great spider web of U.N. agreements that only serve to intrude upon American sovereignty. U.N. committees and U.N. special rapporteurs are especially meddlesome. And even though the treaty is not “self-executing,” that is, it would still require legislative action to bring it into force, conservatives are wary of activist judges and justices.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the juvenile death penalty, the majority decision cited the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the United States has never ratified. Would they be any less restrained in citing controversial passages in a treaty that we have ratified? Doubtful. It is at least conceivable that the treaty could be referenced in a future case upholding Roe v. Wade.

In the end, Kerry and treaty proponents simply did not make their case. They said U.S. ratification was necessary so that other countries to would live up to their treaty obligations. For instance, on Alexanderplatz in Berlin there is a Burger King with restroom facilities down a steep flight of stairs. Kerry wants us to believe that Germany, a signatory to the treaty, is waiting for our ratification in order to build an elevator to that bathroom. Or that wheel chair cutouts will only appear in Rome after America ratifies this treaty. In fact, U.S. ratification would not affect any country.

Germany is a first-world country as is Italy, and disabled persons struggle in each of them. Just imagine how little effect ratification of this treaty has had in Kazakhstan or Ecuador or Tunisia or any other developing country on persons with disabilities.

Advocates of U.N. treaties tend to make exaggerated, even extravagant claims about what U.S. ratification would mean. A few years ago a woman actually testified before the Senate that U.S. ratification of the Women’s Rights Treaty would finally stop the horror of Afghan women getting acid thrown in their faces. This is simply ridiculous.

The fact is there is no national interest in the U.S. ratifying this treaty. It would not help American servicemen or others with disabilities one iota when they travel or work overseas.

And at the end of the day, if the reproductive health language is turned for abortion purposes, the treaty could be used against persons with disabilities. After all, 80 percent of persons with disabilities never make it out of the womb because of abortion. Abortion-on-demand John Kerry – who is a candidate to become Secretary of State, or maybe of Defense, never mentioned that inconvenient fact. And he and his allies intend to bring the treaty back for another vote soon.

Very few countries have the nerve to stand up to the United Nations and its treaty-making machinery. America is one. The other is the Holy See. The Holy See opposed this treaty at its inception and it opposes it now. The Church probably cares for more disabled persons than any other group in the world. Here we are 2,000 years later and we are still carrying the crippled man into the healing water.

And we do it without a treaty.


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.