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Tuesday, 3 September, 2002, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Abortion issue bedevils summit
Women protest outside summit venue
Women's rights have proved an obstacle at the summit

Differences over women's rights to health care have emerged as the last, and most contentious, sticking points holding up a final plan of action at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Debate over the wording of a final paragraph in the draft declaration has rekindled a controversy which has bedevilled previous international meetings over women's rights to contraception, safe abortion and other reproductive health services.

Muslim women in Afghanistan
Some conservative countries oppose expanding women's rights

As ever, the issue is arousing strong passions.

Arrivals at the summit venue on Tuesday morning were confronted by the sight of usually sedate women delegates lined up along the pavement and shouting their heads off.

Of all the 150-odd paragraphs in the proposed action plan, all have now been agreed except paragraph 47, which refers to strengthening the capacity of health services to deliver basic health to all.

This might not seem an obvious hurdle for a summit which has managed to agree on energy, fisheries, trade and a number of contentious issues.

But previous UN conferences have almost foundered on what is implied but not spelled out in the paragraph -- access to such reproductive health services as sex education, contraception and. in countries where it is legal, safe abortion.

Compromise

After so many previous rows between the women's rights lobby and religiously conservative governments like the Vatican, Saudi Arabia and the United States, the United Nations has evolved a form of words which usually satisfies both sides.

It says that services should be provided consistent with cultural and religious values, which pleases the conservatives, and consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms, which pleases the women's groups.

But for some reason, the text submitted to this summit only contained half that formulation.

The reference to human rights and fundamental freedoms was left out.

Delegations led by Canada and the European Union are now fighting to get that phrase reinstated.


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03 Sep 02 | Africa
06 Jun 00 | Americas
08 Mar 02 | South Asia
08 Mar 00 | South Asia
20 Nov 00 | Middle East
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