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Voices Online Edition
Pentecost 2002
Volume XVII, No. 2

Wrong Way - Go Back
UN Misdirections on Sexual and Reproductive Rights for Adolescents

by Rita Joseph

Adolescent sexual behavior led the list of items the UN Population and Development Commission discussed the first week of April in New York. The focus was the UN Secretary-General's latest Report on Reproductive Health (ECN 9/2002/2). The UN Secretariat, who produced the report, had access to the latest data released by the UN Population Division, including data on adolescent sexual behavior and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS among adolescents.

The reality behind the statistics is appalling.

Indeed, enough statistical evidence is presented to convince even the most sanguine sexual liberals that exposure to sexual activity at an early age is fraught with extremely serious health risks. The writers of this report, however, did not draw the most obvious conclusion that adolescents need to be protected from all forms of premature sexual initiation.

Self-protection for adolescents to replace adult protection
The report focuses instead on the need to equip all adolescents with condoms - a plan presented as being just as effective as abstinence in avoiding the risks of pregnancy, STDs and HIV/AIDS (¶158).

Insuring that premature sexual activity is "protected" seems to have replaced the traditional concept of adults protecting young people from premature sexual initiation. Gone is the idea that all responsible adults (parents, teachers, doctors, counselors, police, judges and religious leaders) have a duty to protect all adolescents from premature sexual intercourse. The onus has shifted from the duty of care owed to adolescents by parents and their communities to "self-protection" - to "the protection and promotion of the rights of adolescents to information and services" (¶ 207) and to the adolescent's "right to protect oneself" (¶ 208). The idea "self-protection" is especially ludicrous when applied to "adolescent women under age 15" who, the report says, are having sexual interactions that "usually occur under pressure, as these women are particularly vulnerable to sexual coercion" and as "biologically more vulnerable to STIs and HIV infections" as well as "generally not being in a position to negotiate safer sex with their partners" (¶ 186).

The report further states: "For many adolescents, sexual initiation occurs before having adequate information on potential health risks, the skills of self-protection and full access to reproductive health services. This situation is exacerbated when sexual initiation takes place at a very early age. An additional concern is sexual activity at very early ages is often involuntary or coerced" (¶ 16).

Regrettably, this concern does not call for responsible family and community protection and supervision of young girls who have not acquired "the skills of self-protection". Nor does the concern extend to calling for enforcement of the laws on statutory rape. The report expounds long and often on the adverse effects of early marriage, calling for age-at-marriage laws to be enforced (¶ 206). But there is no corresponding call for strict enforcement of the laws against the seduction of minors or premature sexual intercourse.

Sexual autonomy for the psychologically and emotionally immature?
If, as the report says, the "prevalence of sexual activity before age 18" is an indicator of reproductive health problems "because psychological and emotional immaturity is often associated with risk-taking behaviors" (¶17), then why is there no effort to discourage sexual activity before age 18?

The unmistakable underlying assumption is that sexually active youngsters should not be deterred, chastised or judged - they are to be a law unto themselves. The report charges that lack of privacy and confidentiality, fear of social stigma and judgmental attitudes of service providers (¶ 187) unfairly restrict adolescents' access to the condoms, contraceptives and abortion services that supposedly supply seamless protection as young girls continue risky sexual behavior. Yet why would providing privacy and confidentiality be helpful to adolescents caught in the inevitable abuses of under-age sexual activity? What the report decries as "fear of social stigma and judgmental attitudes" seems a misrepresentation of normal benign signs of a community's concern to advise and protect its members who are psychologically and emotionally immature.

The only restriction this report places on the sexual activity of minors is that they must be taught to have only "protected sex". This is nonsense, given the statistical revelations in this same report of just how difficult it is for adults, even with the very best access to the very best information and services in the Western world, to "protect" themselves successfully.

For example, the report states that HIV infection rates are climbing in North American cities, Amsterdam and Eastern Europe, and that "unsafe sex threatens to become the norm again" (¶ 179). If "prevention efforts are stalling in most industrialized countries: [and] there is evidence that HIV incidence has not declined in the last five years" (¶ 177), then why does this report assert that these same flawed services might save young girls whose "psychological and emotional immaturity" makes them the most vulnerable to "risk taking" sexual activity?

Girls' physical susceptibility to AIDS and HIV disease
"Children, especially girl children, may also acquire HIV/AIDS when they are exposed to sexual activity at an early age", the report says, and then goes on to imply that premature sexual activity is fine as long as these children have "access to information and counseling about HIV/AIDS and STIs" and are "eligible for services" (¶ 212). But as the report points out in a number of places, adolescent girls have a greater biological susceptibility to HIV infection (up to 5 or 6 times higher than boys), are less likely to be able to negotiate condom use or partner fidelity (¶ 181) and have "the highest prevalence of chlamydia"(¶ 154).

Surely it should be concluded from further references to "the greater vulnerability of female adolescents because of the immaturity of the cervix" (¶146-7), that they should be protected from early sexual activity, not educated to engage in it "safely" at an age where it can never be deemed safe.

Too young for marriage but not for "sexual activity"?
Many women entering marriage "are simply too young to make an informed decision" the report says, and early marriage "deprives a girl of adolescence and educational opportunities" and often "entails childbearing" (¶25). The same could be said of early sexual initiation but isn't. If a girl is too young for marriage, why isn't she too young to make an informed decision about her "exposure to sex, pregnancy, STIs and childbearing outside of the context of marriage" (¶205)?

A general increase in the prevalence of pre-marital sexual activity is reported as a consequence of the widening gap between the age of sexual initiation and the age of marriage. But this "recent evolution of nuptiality patterns" is seen only as further confirmation that provision of condoms and abortion services must be urgently expanded.

It is curious that while the report acknowledges education as "a major underlying factor influencing age at first marriage and contraceptive use" (¶ 45), education appears to have had only mixed success in influencing the age of sexual initiation (¶ 20).

The honest conclusion that can be drawn from the statistical tables here is that so-called "reproductive health" education programs operating over the last decade in industrialized countries are not protecting adolescents from premature sexual initiation.

But have these programs really tried to defer sexual initiation? Not at all. Instead they attempt to lull us with tolerant psychobabble such as "the onset of sexual activity typically takes place during adolescence, a period of growth, experimentation and identity search" (¶ 14)?

In the report's preoccupation with increasing adolescents' access to reproductive health services, a UNICEF 2000 survey is cited as evidence of unmet need. "Recent surveys in 17 countries show that more than half the adolescents questioned could not name a single method of protecting themselves against HIV/AIDS".

How many of the adolescents surveyed were pre-pubescent 10 year-olds? How many of the adolescents were 10 to 14 year-olds who were not sexually active? How many of them were living out the only truly reliable method of protecting themselves against AIDS? Does it matter that they could not name abstinence?

Sexually active 10 year-olds?
Much of the confused message of this report and similar reports from other UN agencies stems from a deliberate blurring of the lines of demarcation between adolescence and adulthood. Footnote #4 gives the official WHO definitions. Adolescents are persons aged from 10 to 19 years. Youth are persons from 15 to 24 years. Young people are persons aged from 10 to 24 years. Regrettably, over the last ten years of UN mega-conferencing, European Union delegations have made an art form of working the language in order to free adolescents of all ages from current age restrictions on sexual activity and on access to all the paraphernalia that is supposed to make it safe. In particular, they have consistently used the term "young people" (10-24 year-olds) to argue for sexual rights that are not appropriate for 10-15 year-olds.

This report indulges in the same sort of semantic chicanery. For example, when arguing that reproductive and sexual services are inadequate for youth, the term "sexually active adolescent women and men" is used (e.g. ¶ 186). In other places they use "children who are exposed to sexual activity at an early age" (e.g. ¶ 214).
Clearly demanding better access to condoms and abortion services for "sexually active children" does not have quite the same persuasive ring as demanding those services for "sexually active adolescent women and men".

Abortion advocacy still the focus of UN Reproductive Health Programs
Legal abortions/unsafe abortions provides another exercise in semantics. The report on abortions divides them into "25 million legal abortions and 20 million unsafe abortions" (¶ 93) with the clear implication that all legal abortions are safe. Later comes the contradiction: "In a number of developing countries that have legalized abortions, the procedure is neither broadly available nor uniformly safe" (¶ 120).

So why the contradiction? The next paragraph tells all:

a) The UN Secretariat wants the "lack of confidentiality" (mustn't notify parents) removed and the "prevalent stigma on abortion removed" (everyone must say how good abortion is for adolescents) - evidently not enough Zambian adolescents are availing themselves of their legal right to have an abortion; and
b) The UN Secretariat wants "conscientious objection" to abortion removed for nurses and doctors - in the example given, South African nurses and doctors (pro-life) are blamed for the lack of accessibility to legal abortion.

Next is the stagnation in reducing maternal deaths - this real scandal is borne out by the statistics. The report admits that "in the developing world there appears to have been a relative stagnation in maternal mortality since 1990" (¶ 130). It goes on to reveal that "in some settings", there have been "apparent increases" in maternal mortality, but this is chalked up to "improved reporting". No one wants to admit that since 1990, too much of the limited money available for basic life-saving maternal health care has been siphoned off into provision of condoms, contraceptives, abortion and abortion advocacy.

Indeed, why doesn't the report tell us how much money the UNFPA/WHO/UNICEF have poured into sub-Saharan Africa for population control/reproductive health programs, with the main emphasis being on fertility control services? Instead, we are told that regarding the provision of basic obstetric care for mothers at delivery, "in sub-Saharan Africa, there has been barely any perceptible change over the 10 year period" (¶ 134). What an indictment of UN maternal health programs over the last 10 years!

Again, this report is confusing: it lists all the major causes of pregnancy-related deaths and then homes in on one of the relatively minor causes, maternal deaths allegedly from abortions (13%), with the clear agenda that abortion must be legalized in all remaining countries to make it safe. "Abortion-related mortality is particularly important in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean and may account for up to 30% of all maternal deaths in some settings" (¶ 136 - emphasis added). Absolutely no proof is given - this appears to be an attempt to talk up abortion-related deaths in order to pressure remaining countries into legalizing abortion.

"Negotiating" sex
In this latest report, as in the whole range of the UN's reproductive health literature, an age-old problem - how to protect women and girls from all the adverse consequences of predatory sexual relationships - has emerged with a new twist. Current language has it that women and girls are often physically or psycho-socially unable to "negotiate safe sex" with their "partners" (See for example, Reproductive health research at WHO: a new beginning, Biennial Report 1998-1999, pp 29-32). This vulnerability is being used as a battering ram to shatter any remaining resistance to legalizing abortion globally. The argument, put bluntly, is that girls who cannot negotiate safer sex have a right to abort any baby conceived in the "unsafe" process. The proposed solution also calls for greater funding for more of the same old sexual and reproductive health programs that are supposed to equip women and girls with services (including abortion) that claim to limit the harm ensuing from their inability to "negotiate" the use of a condom.

There is little understanding of the real situation regarding this age-old problem with the new-fangled name "negotiating safer sex". The new extreme sexual liberalism bears much responsibility for exacerbating this vulnerability problem to epidemic proportions, especially with regard to adolescent girls.

Collapse of community standards
To understand the massive increase in girls' vulnerability over the last few decades, we need to look at the traditional checks and balances that have been steadily removed or corrupted - such as the following:

A profoundly important part of this protective process could be retrieved if families, churches, schools, clubs and social groups would work toward the establishment and maintenance of sound community standards of behavior, including these:
1. moderating alcohol intake;
2. eschewing the use of recreational drugs, their acceptability and availability;
3. reserving sexual intercourse for marriage, discouraging pre-marital and extra-marital sexual activity;
4. condemning prostitution; and
5. enforcing strict laws not only against rape but also against seduction of minors.

The truth is that the problem of "negotiating safe sex" does not arise in a community where marriage vows are taken seriously. In a community where husbands and wives understand that it is in their mutual interest to protect each other from ill-health, in a community where husbands and wives understand and respect the natural patterns of fertility in the female reproductive cycle and accept each child conceived whether planned or unplanned - in this milieu, "negotiating safe sex" is a non-issue.

In a community where there is neither pre-marital nor extra-marital sexual relations, the problem of "negotiating safer sex" is unlikely to be generated - the knowledge that one is committed for life exclusively to the other, that there is no quick or easy escape from the consequences of irresponsible sexual behavior, should tend to concentrate the mind most powerfully to ensure the enduring good of the other.

De facto relationships, serial marriages resulting from social acceptance of easy divorce, extra-marital affairs, adolescent promiscuity exercised in short-term relationships and one-night stands, acceptance and legalization of prostitution as just another career choice in just another service industry: these are the social pathologies that spawn the so-called "right to negotiate safer sex".

Pregnancy - just another STD?
It is disturbing to note that the right to negotiate "safer" sex appears to include the right to negotiate the exclusion of not only sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS and chlamydia but also sexually-transmitted pregnancy! WHO and UNFPA literature abounds with this dual threat and health programs concentrate on providing the education and the means to avoid both outcomes, which are presented as equally undesirable and life-threatening.

For example, WHO's Reproductive Health Program Development: Biennial Report 1998-1999 (Geneva) has an entire section entitled "Protecting against disease and pregnancy"; and it defines "dual protection" as "the prevention of two unplanned and undesirable outcomes - unintended pregnancy and HIV/STI infection" (p 57).

The WHO Research Program has spent hundreds of research years and millions of research dollars developing the hCG immuno-contraceptive, furthering this idea that pregnancy is just another disease against which women and girls are to be immunized (pp 43-4).

Abortion to "prevent" HIV
Finally, there is another chilling development - one that has been kept fairly well hidden by UN bodies involved in HIV/AIDS prevention - the expansion and promotion of abortion services to reduce mother-to-baby transmission of HIV. Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights (Geneva, 1996, p 38 f) stipulates that "states should ensure that all women and girls of child-bearing age have access to accurate and comprehensive information and counseling on the prevention of HIV transmission and the risk of vertical transmission of HIV, as well as access to available resources to minimize that risk, or to proceed with childbirth, if they so choose."

Wrong way - go back!
Meanwhile, UN health programs continue to give highest priority to providing adolescent girls with the widest range of sexual and "reproductive" services.

The addition of phrases like "in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of adolescents" has proved a useless limitation, since current programs make it clear that it must be the girl herself who decides just how far her capacity has "evolved".

Sexual autonomy for adolescents - the same sexual and reproductive "rights" for adolescents as for adults - has been the call from the UN Secretariat and the UN agencies for a decade now. It is becoming clearer with each new set of related statistics released by the UN Population Division that this has had devastating results.

Common sense and the common good demands that we return to family and community-based programs that focus once again on protection and guidance for youngsters rather than on the promotion of sexual and reproductive "rights".

Rita Joseph has represented family concerns at UN conferences, and writes and lectures on social issues especially concerning women and families, and has made a special study of the Holy Father's writings on family and on women. She has previously lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne.  Rita and her husband live in Canberra, Australia.

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