Fringe Activists Take Center Stage At Senate Hearing On Disabilities Treaty

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the Senate failed to ratify last year thanks to a startlingly successful religious-right scare campaign.

Showing just how radical the opposition to the treaty is, nearly every witness testifying on behalf of the treaty was a Republican. Pro-treaty witnesses included Republican senators Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte, former Republican congressman and Bush homeland security secretary Tom Ridge and former Republican governor and attorney general Dick Thornburgh. Ayotte read a statement from former Republican senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole in support of the treaty, and former Republican senator Bill Frist lent his voice in support of the treaty in a Reuters op-ed published yesterday morning.

The fact that the treaty has wide support from mainstream Republicans left its opponents on the Foreign Relations Committee to reach into the right-wing fringe to find witnesses to testify against ratification.

Susan Yoshihara, vice president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute focused her testimony on her fear that the treaty’s protection for “sexual and reproductive health” would promote access to abortions – a major concern for a group dedicated to fighting protections for gay people and reproductive rights around the world.

Yoshihara’s claim has been thoroughly debunked, including by a major anti-choice group, and was debunked again by Frist in his op-ed:

The relevant provisions in the treaty regarding sexual and reproductive health demand nondiscrimination for persons with disabilities.

In many parts of the world, people with disabilities, regardless of age, are believed to be sexually immature or inactive. The assumption can make them targets for rape and other sexual crimes while, at the same time, gynecologic and obstetrical care are withheld and considered inappropriate and unnecessary. In other cases, they are forcibly sterilized or forced to have abortions, simply because they have a disability.

The treaty’s “sexual and reproductive health” language is a necessary provision to protect these people. It does not define services — a ratifying country’s existing law provides the definition. The agreement simply demands that those with disabilities not be denied any treatments based on their disability.

It does not create any new services not previously available or legally sanctioned in an adopting country.

Meanwhile, Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association continued what Frist called his “impressive fear campaign” claiming that the treaty would somehow endanger the rights of American homeschoolers. Last year, Farris went so far as to claim that the treaty would allow the U.N. to come into American homes and seize children with glasses. At yesterday’s hearing, he claimed that a case involving a homeschooling German family that was denied asylum in the U.S. means that the Obama administration is hostile to homeschooling and would somehow us the disabilities treaty to overturn U.S. homeschooling laws.

In an exchange with Sen. Dick Durbin, Farris was unable to explain how the treaty, which is based on the already-implemented Americans with Disabilities Act and would require no changes to American laws, would in fact destroy homeschooling. 

“I struggle with the thought that we are going to stop this effort to extend the rights of the disabled around the world for fear of something which you can’t even clearly articulate when it comes to homeschooling,” Durbin responded.

Former senator Rick Santorum also revived his role in opposing the treaty yesterday, sending out an email claiming, absurdly, that the convention "threatens U.S. sovereignty and parental rights, and if ratified, it would effectively put us under international law when it comes to parenting our special needs children." Needless to say, none of those claims has any basis in reality.