US Senate Poised to Vote on Disabilities Treaty

There is word from Capitol Hill that the Senate may vote this week on ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.

This is a treaty negotiated in the late 2000s and signed by the United States in 2009. The treaty is crafted in the language of other international human rights agreements to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to education, health care, employment opportunities and other basic human aspirations without discrimination. It effectively makes universal many of the rights enshrined in the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, passed into law in 1990.

Treaty ratification will not change much within the USA, but it could make a difference for people with physical, intellectual or sensory impairments in the developing world. For the 124 governments that have already ratified it, this treaty an international pledge to their own citizens with disabilities.

Despite its good intentions, there is some opposition to the treaty in the United States from social conservatives who believe the treaty somehow supports abortion. The home schooling movement is also particularly concerned that the treaty will force parents to send their children to schools.

Even the most cursory reading of the treaty, though, shows these concerns to be unfounded. There is no discussion of abortion anywhere in the document. The treaty does mention family planning and reproductive health, but only in the context of ensuring that persons with disabilities are provided equal access to these services. Because abortion is illegal in many countries around the world, UN documents rarely–if ever–cite abortion as a method of family planning.  (Even the founding document of the UN agency charged with promoting reproductive health specifically excludes mention of abortion as family planning.)

Still, some Senators are unconvinced. Republican Senator Marco Rubio advanced an amendment that would explicitly state that the reproductive health provisions of the treaty exclude abortion. The amendment failed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along a party line vote, but a version of it could be resurrected in a vote before the entire senate. That could be a poison pill: Liberals are loathe to endorse any provision that might somehow define what is and what is not considered reproductive health, and conservatives say they need this assurance. If a similar measure is brought before the entire Senate for a vote, it will likely also fail along a party line vote.  Then the question is whether or not a few Republicans will nonetheless vote for the treaty?

Prior to the election a group of 36 senators signed a letter indicating they oppose any vote on treaty ratification during the lame duck session. Ratifying a treaty requires two thirds vote. With Senator Mark Kirk still absent after suffering a stroke last year, that means at least two of these 36 Republicans would need to support the treaty.

The margins of the vote will likely be razor thin. When the vote occurs, it will be a good test of whether international treaties that have little to do with abortion can nonetheless escape the trap of domestic American abortion politics.