What Are the "San Jose Articles"? Don't Be Fooled By the Conservative Global Elites' Latest Ploy to Attack Science, Women, and the United Nations

The sum of nine articles are meant to etch away at important gains made by the global reproductive rights community, from liberalizing abortion laws inNepal to Colombia and Mexico.

They say timing is everything. That’s  almost certainly what an anti-choice global elite had in mind when they launched the “San Jose Articles” last week at the United Nations. Comprised of nine tenets that mimic global human rights agreement language, the articles are an attempt to dismantle safe abortion access, and undermine the authority of the United Nations and other governing bodies to ensure the health and rights of women worldwide.

The articles were released in time with a report launched Monday by the UN Special Rapporteur Anand Grover on the “Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health” (isn’t that nice of him?). In the report, Grover considers “the interaction between criminal laws and  other legal restrictions relating to sexual and reproductive health.” He finds that, in particular, criminalization and legal restriction of abortion – worldwide – are detrimental to the rights, health, and happiness of individuals. In sum, criminalization of abortion doesn’t work.

If you’re a supporter of reproductive rights, this report qualifies as a slam dunk. Currently, there are 68 countries in the world where abortion is prohibitedalmost entirely. But if you’re an anti-choice advocate, this news comes crashing down and you need to think quick. Enter the San Jose Articles.

The nine articles take aim at three key foci of power: science, the United Nations, and global reproductive rights groups. Article 1 puts science on the chopping block: “As a matter of scientific fact a new human life begins at conception.” Articles 5 and 9 question the UN’s authority to monitor and govern: “No United Nations treaty can accurately be cited as establishing or recognizing a right to abortion… UN agencies and officers, regional and national courts, and others should desist from implicit or explicit assertions of a right to abortion based upon international law.”

The sum of nine articles are meant to etch away at important gains made by the global reproductive rights community, from liberalizing abortion laws inNepal to Colombia and Mexico.  Global Rights Watch, a pro-choice watchdog coalition, circulated an alert last week warning that the articles “could be used to confuse negotiations and public discourse on human rights, especially at the UN and in other international and national forums.” The group said that the articles were being launched in cities across the US and Europe, and copies were being sent to policymakers worldwide.

The articles point out that there is technically no “right to abortion” in any current global human rights agreement. And they’re right. But this is beside the point. Reproductive rights advocates have used established human rights frameworks – which include the right to health – skillfully and successfully over the past decades to establish precedence for access to safe and legal abortion. There is nothing subversive or wrong about this – it’s called advocacy. “States’ failures to ensure access to safe and legal abortion violates human rights established in international law, including the right to health, to reproductive health, and the right to decide the number and spacing of children as well as principles of non-discrimination,” said Global Rights Watch.  

And with the political lightening storm that the abortion issues touches off, how could there realistically be a codified right to abortion? The UN has long been caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue – too conservative for most reproductive rights advocates and yet still far too liberal for anti-choice proponents. 

The articles’ signatories are perhaps more fascinating than the articles themselves – an impressive and sweeping group of individuals from around the world, with titles like “Supreme Knight,” “Lord,” and “Honorable,” not to mention a number of of MDs and PhDs. Yet even cursory research into these individuals reveals a strong bias toward religious ideology over scientific and medical facts, and reminds us that, with enough hard work, just about anyone can get a fancy degree.

Most of the signatories are the usual ideologue suspects. Most or all associated with right-wing religious groups in some way, including Focus on the Family and C-Fam, and many have direct links to Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), who is mysteriously not a signatory, although his wife Marie is.

Other signatories bear far weightier titles that drag major institutions into this ideological fray. The Queen of England’s cousin, Lord Nicholas Windsor, is a signatory as is Dr. Robert George, a Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Professor George is considered one of the foremost conservative Christian scholars in the US and in 2009, on the heels of President Obama’s election, authored a conservative manifesto called the Manhattan Declaration, which argued against progressive US tendencies including abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage.

US-based reproductive rights advocates have been distracted by relentless attacks on abortion access at the state level, and yet the San Jose Articles are evidence that anti-abortion advocates like Professor George are already one step ahead and thinking globally. The implications of this are more insidious than reproductive rights supporters may realize.

“The power of the San Jose Articles, if they even carry weight, is their influence on public opinion and the possibility to misinform policy makers and the judiciary about international law. If and when international law is used in US court decisions to defend reproductive rights, the SJA may be invoked to delegitimize such rulings,” said Gillian Kane, Senior Policy Advisor for Ipas, a global reproductive rights group.

Though there may not (yet) be an international right to abortion, there are strong grounds to argue for something tantamount. Further, advocates do indeed have a strong body of evidence – that restricting abortion access has no bearing on abortion numbers, rather only makes them fatal for women. This is the conclusion that Anand Gover arrives at, with the recommendation that states have an obligation to humanity to prevent this harm.

The San Jose Articles are egregious not only because they attempt to contradict these evidence-based findings. They are also a brazen attempt to undermine the United Nation’s and Anand Grover’s vested authority to monitor, consider, and recommend policies in the best interest of individuals worldwide. 

Whatever side of the spectrum we find ourselves on with regards to abortion – or any other issue for that matter – we must still agree to support the authority of objective bodies such as the United Nations to watch and establish policy recommendations.


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