The more one reflects on the topic "international organizations and the defense of the family" the more puzzles seem to be packed into the one little word and. What connections are there, or should there be, between the oldest groups of society and huge modern organizations that are so remote from everyday life?
The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that the family is entitled to protection from society and the state. But there is no evidence that the Declaration's drafters expected the United Nations itself to play much of a role in protecting the family. Now that the United Nations and its specialized agencies have developed into sprawling bureaucracies symbiotically entwined with large international lobbying associations, it is still far from obvious how institutions at that level can best assist families. In fact, the current activities of many international organizations often cause one to wonder whether the family needs to be defended by them or protected against them!
What I would like to focus upon are the family related activities of the United Nations and its affiliates, specifically, a surprising trend that has recently gathered momentum. This development is nothing less than a many-sided assault on several fundamental principles enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the provisions that the family is the basic social unit and that it is entitled to protection. Though these attacks fly the flags of various liberation movements, they also represent bids for unprecedented forms of social control.
The Declaration's Vision
The first important manifestation of interest in the family by an international organization took place in 1948 when the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man was issued in Bogota, Colombia. This remarkable document was one of the principal influences on the family-related provisions of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved in Paris later that year. Reading those two documents one is struck by the pervasiveness of references to the family. Both declarations announce that the family is the fundamental unit of society; they recite that everyone has the right to marry and establish a family; that the home is inviolable; that a worker is entitled to a standard of living suitable for himself and his family; and that the family in general and motherhood and childhood in particular are entitled to the protection of society and the state. The U.N. declaration provides in addition for spousal equality and for the prior right of parents to choose the education of their children.
The two international declarations are grounded in a common set of assumptions about man and society that one might call dignitarian or personalist. The Bogota and U.N. declarations provide in almost identical language that all men and women are born free and equal in dignity and rights; that human beings are endowed with reason and conscience, and that they should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Both documents treat the bearer of individual rights not as a self-sufficient monad, but as a person situated in community and family relationships. The U.N. declaration, for example, provides that everyone has duties to the "community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible."
The history of the 1948 declarations is silent on how their family-related provisions should be carried into effect. The United Nations' involvement with families in the early years was confined mainly to providing humanitarian assistance. As time went by, however, the United Nations grew into an elaborate bureaucracy, employing thousands of international civil servants. Its specialized agencies multiplied and extended their reach. Some of the newer U.N. groups, such as the Population Fund and the Committee on the Status of Women, became more intent on managing the family than assisting it.
The U.N. bureaucracy attracted and developed close working relationships with interest groups desirous of influencing its activities. Some of these international lobbying groups, unfortunately, wanted to protect the family as much as wolves want to protect little lambs. The assault on the family thus began behind the scenes long before it came out in the open.
The Family as Obstacle
To understand why and how the family-protection principle came under attack in the United Nations, let us consider a remarkable series of events that took place in 1995. Early that year, the U.N. Secretariat for the International Year of the Family issued a booklet stating that "the basic principle of social organization is the human rights of individuals, which have been set forth in international instruments of human rights."
That idea sounds innocent enough until you begin to wonder how it fits with the 1948 declaration, which provides that the family is the basic unit of society. The U.N. Secretariat anticipated this question. It is true, they admitted, that "several human rights documents" refer to the family as the basic social unit and that they guarantee protection and assistance to the family, but "the power of the family is and should be limited by the basic human rights of its individual members. The protection and assistance accorded to the family must safeguard these rights."
No one could reasonably object to that proposition if it simply means that no rights, including the rights of the family, are unlimited. But, together with other U.N. developments, notably the subtle erosion of the moral authority of parents in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1995 guidelines looked very much like part of a deliberate effort to set individual rights in opposition to family relationships, to insert the state between children and parents, and to undermine the status of the family as a subject of human rights protection. This interpretation gained plausibility in November 1995, when the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child angrily attacked the Holy See for its reservations to these very aspects of the children's rights convention. Since all these documents were issued by the United Nations itself, it appeared that the fox was in the chicken coop.
All doubts on that score were removed by the U.N. Women's Conference that took place in Beijing in September of that year. When I first read the draft conference document prepared by the U.N. Committee on the Status of Women, I could hardly believe my eyes. How was it possible that the proposed program of action for a women's conference barely mentioned marriage, motherhood or family life anywhere in its 149 pages? And that when marriage and family life--and even religion--were mentioned, they were presented mainly in a negative light--as sources of oppression or obstacles to women's progress? The explanation is that the U.N. Committee on the Status of Women had become, to a great extent, the tool of special interest groups promoting a brand of feminism that was already passé in the countries where it originated. The Beijing draft thus parroted many of the tired cliches of 1970s feminism--a feminism that had alienated the great majority of women through its inattention to the real life problems of work and family, its hostility to men and its disgraceful indifference to the welfare of children. In the preconference negotiations, these old-line feminist attacks on the family were combined with efforts to promote a notion of more recent vintage: the idea that the family--and sexual identity--are just arbitrary categories, socially constructed and infinitely malleable. At the Beijing conference itself, a coalition led by the European Union continued this two-pronged effort to "deconstruct" the family and to remove every positive reference to marriage, motherhood, the family, parental rights and religion.
These delegates seemed unaware that the very language they were seeking to remove from the Beijing documents was central to most of their own national constitutions! It was a sorry sight to see women from France, Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain trampling on human rights that had been won by the sacrifices of their own fathers and mothers! And sadder still to see delegates of many developing countries stand by in silence as matters of vital concern to their own fellow citizens were subordinated to the agendas of First World interest groups.
A stranger to these controversies might well wonder why anyone would want to undermine the principle of family protection, especially at a time when families are undergoing exceptional stress in every part of the world. The standard answers one hears to that question are framed in the language of individual liberty, gender equality, and compassion for victims of spousal and child abuse. We are told that the family cannot be permitted to stand in the way of women's and children's rights. And that, in any event, the family has been too narrowly defined so as to unfairly prefer heterosexual marriage over nonmarital cohabitation and same sex unions.
But it would be a mistake to regard the assaults on the family-protection principle as merely misguided efforts to promote freedom and equality. They are also about power and interest, though to what extent it is difficult to say. Much of the leadership and financial support for these initiatives comes largely from persons who are interested not in the rights of women or children or homosexuals, but in preservation of privilege. They are seeking not liberation in general, but social control for themselves.
Their less obvious motives can be discerned in the strange new rights they proposeCrights which often turn out to be double-edged "rights for me, duties for thee." The so-called "reproductive rights," for example, may represent autonomy for some women, but they also provide a convenient cover story for efforts to control the family size of the poor by any means possible. The proposed "right to die" may satisfy the desire of some affluent people to feel that they are "in control" until the very end, but who can doubt that it portends a duty to die for those who are sick, helpless and unable to afford medical care? As for "sexual rights," it does not seem fanciful to regard them as a modern version of bread and circuses, a promise of unlimited sexual liberty as a distraction from the loss of genuine freedom and the denial of economic justice.
The most unpleasant designs of the backers of international anti-family initiatives can be discerned in the iron triangle of exclusion they are constructing in their home countries: They are excluding new life through abortion and sterilization; they are barring the door against the stranger through restrictive immigration policies; and they are turning their backs on the poor through cutbacks in family-assistance programs. Where foreign aid is concerned, they will give millions for "reproductive services" but pennies for maternal and infant nutrition, clean water or primary health care. When they look at the children of the poor, they see only a menace to the environment, a portent of social unrest and a threat to their own level of consumption. The main source of all the problems in the world, in their view, is overpopulation, and their main solution is to eliminate poor people.
In one sense, the current attacks on the family represent a new version of a story that is as old as politics itself. Groups that wish to undermine an established order, from the French revolutionaries to 20th-century Marxists, have typically attacked the families that carry the values of the old order.
What makes our current situation historically novel, however, is that the attack on the family is so diffuse. It cannot be identified with a particular nation or region or a single ideology. Its diverse manifestations have little in common--apart from the promotion of the interests of a bureaucratic-managerial-therapeutic class animated by little more than the desire to consolidate the unprecedented prosperity that came their way in the latter half of the 20th century.
This new class is truly international. Its members--the mobile, semi-educated, knowledge workers that populate every nation's governmental agencies, corporations, universities, professions, mass media and social service agencies--increasingly have more in common with each other than with the poor in their own societies.
The world has never before seen anything quite like the amorphous, stateless bid for social control by a class that seeks not to rule, but to maintain a position. Their movement has no head, but many arms moving more or less in the same direction. Their common direction arises less from conspiracy than from unconscious parallelism. They are not so much against the family as determined not to let the family, religion or any other institution stand in the way of what they want.
It is easy to see why well-financed, new class-interest groups flock to international organizations like the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights. In their home countries, they shun the ordinary political processes that would expose their agendas to the judgment of their fellow citizens. They seek rather to influence administrative agencies or to obtain unappealable rulings from unelected constitutional courts.
No wonder, then, that they were quick to seize new opportunities to operate far from public scrutiny and democratic accountability. Organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation have made every effort to turn U.N. conferences into offshore manufacturing sites for converting the population-control agenda into "international standards," which could then be used to influence not only international agencies, but domestic policies and programs of foreign aid. In this way, a controversial agenda can affect the lives of millions of people without ever having been subjected to the test of the ballot box.
In sum, then, the years between 1948 and 1995 saw a steady rise in diverse movements that sought to treat the family (and religion) as obstacles to human rights, rather than as subjects of human rights protection. It now seems that the family-friendly principles of the 1948 universal declaration are in serious danger of being suppressed or distorted beyond recognition. This brings us to the question:
What Is to Be Done?
Catholic Christianity requires us to be active in the world. We are called, each of us with our different gifts, to be workers in the vineyard for the coming of the kingdom.
The Church has often recognized that the United Nations, despite all its flaws, waste and failures, has accomplished much good, especially in poor countries, and it offers much hope in a world where nations are faced with many challenges that cross national boundaries.
The Holy See's activity in the United Nations has shown that even a few voices can make a difference when they speak the truth and call good and evil by name. Much of the best language on social justice in recent U.N. documents is there because the Holy See proposed or defended it. Thanks to the Holy See, the United Nations remains committed to the principle that abortion is never to be promoted as a means of birth control. Even at Beijing, when greatly outnumbered, the Holy See was able to save family-protection language by shining the spotlight into those proceedings.
When the European Union fought against all positive references to the family, religion and parental authority, the Holy See delegation sent a press release to the major European newspapers asking why Europe's representatives were taking positions contrary to their own constitutions and their own governments' family policies. We asked whether these delegates really represented official policy or public opinion in their home countries. Within 24 hours, questions began to be raised in European parliaments about what their delegates were doing in Beijing. Before another day had passed, the European delegates backed down from these positions and the contested language was saved.
At the end of the Beijing conference, many good religious people still felt that the conference document was so flawed that the Holy See should reject it in its entirety. But Pope John Paul II instructed us not to take the path of withdrawal. Speaking from the heart of Catholic tradition, he said, "Accept what is good in the document and vigorously denounce what is false and harmful."
Time has already proved the wisdom of this advice. The Istanbul Habitat conference a year after Beijing saw a stunning defeat for the anti-family coalition. As one reporter put it:
"Despite intense bullying, arm-twisting and outright blackmail, the developing countries refused to bow before Western pressure for 'reproductive health' and ambiguously defined 'families.' Instead, representatives of the G-77 mustered the votes to: reaffirm the importance of parental rights; guarantee respect for member states' religious and ethical values; recognize the family [rather than the code-word 'families'] as the basic unit of society; and delete all references to 'reproductive health' except one which was so phrased that it could not be used to force abortion on the developing world."
Even the U.N. Secretariat for the Year of the Family seemed to have had a change of heart or at least a change of lip service. In 1997, they issued a report very different in tone from the 1995 booklet quoted earlier. In its official summary of all the family-related provisions from recent U.N. conferences, the secretariat highlights mainly the provisions that survived due to the efforts of the Holy See!
The conclusion seems irresistible that the withdrawal of the Holy See from the United Nations would only serve to give comfort to the agents of the culture of death. The time has come to recognize, however, that the Holy See in the United Nations has too often been like the little Dutch boy who prevented a flood by keeping his finger in the dike. The time has come to heed the Holy Father's urgent call to families themselves to become "'protagonists' of what is known as 'family politics' and assume responsibility for transforming society."
It is not easy for family members to answer this call. Each of us will have to discern prayerfully what it is that we must contribute. But Pope John Paul II reminds us that there is one thing all families can do, regardless of their situation in life. They can strive to "offer everyone a witness of generous and disinterested dedication to social matters through a 'preferential option' for the poor and disadvantaged" (Familiaris Consortio, 47). Beyond this, he exhorts Christian families "to become actively engaged at every level" in associations that work for the common good and the good of the family.
Let us resolve therefore to answer the Holy Father's call to become protagonists of family politics. Let us not despise politics, but rather retrieve it from those who would pervert it for evil purposes.
Let us resist the self-appointed experts who pretend to know better than we ourselves how we should raise our children.
Let us take back our children's education from proselytizing secularists.
Let us not starve the United Nations, but let us put in on a wholesome diet.
Let us pledge ourselves to play whatever role we can in building the civilization of life and resisting the culture of death.
Mary Ann Glendon is Learned Hand professor of Law, Harvard Law School. This article was condensed from a talk she presented to a pastoral-theological congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 1997.