Holy See’s Final Statement at
Women’s Conference in Beijing

Beijing, September 15, 1995

This great journey must go on!  During the concluding ceremony of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Prof. Mary Ann Glendon, head of the Holy See's Delegation, made the following statement on September 15 regarding the Holy See's position on the Conference documents.  The text includes the Holy See's reservations and statement of interpretation regarding the term "gender."

Madam President,

"When one looks at the great process of women's liberation," one sees that the journey has been a difficult one, with its "share of mistakes," but headed toward a better future for women. Those are the words of Pope John Paul II. And he goes on to say:  "This journey must go on!"  The Holy See Delegation joins its voice to his:  This great journey must go on!

Women's voyage has been marked by false starts and disappointments as well as by luminous achievements. There have been times, as in the industrial revolution, when old forms of oppression were exchanged for new, as well as times when intelligence and good will have triumphed.

The documents before us reflect that complex and uneven history of women's search. They are full of promise, but often short on concrete commitment, and in certain respects one could ask if the long-term consequences will really serve the good of women.

The Delegation of the Holy See has worked hard, in a constructive way and in a spirit of good will to make the documents more responsive to women.  Certainly the living heart of these documents lies in their sections on the needs of women in poverty, on strategies for development, on literacy and education, on ending violence against women, on a culture of peace, and on access to employment, land, capital, and technology.

My Delegation is pleased to note a close correspondence between these points and Catholic social teaching.

My Delegation would be remiss in its duty to women, however, if it did not also indicate several critical areas where it strongly disagrees with the text. My Delegation regrets to note in the text an exaggerated individualism, in which key, relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are slighted.  For example, the obligation to provide" special care and assistance" to motherhood. This selectivity thus marks another step in the colonization of the broad and rich discourse of universal rights by an impoverished, libertarian rights dialect. Surely this international gathering could have done more for women and girls than to leave them alone with their rights!

Surely we must do more for the girl child in poor nations than give lip service to providing access to education, health and social services while carefully avoiding any concrete commitment of new and additional resources to that end.

Surely we can do better than to address the health needs of girls and women by paying disproportionate attention to sexual reproductive health.  Moreover, ambiguous language concerning unqualified control over sexuality and fertility could be interpreted as including societal endorsement of abortion and homosexuality.

See and other countries deem favorable to the true advancement of women. These points are indicated in the reservations which my Delegation has annexed to this statement.

My Delegation is confident that women themselves will overcome the limitations that is best in these documents.  As documents, which are in some ways at odds with themselves the good for women will ultimately prevail, it wishes to associate itself with the consensus only on those above-mentioned aspects of the documents that the Holy See consider to he positive and at the service of the real well-being of women.

Unfortunately, the Holy See's participation in the consensus can be only a partial one because of numerous points in the documents which are incompatible with what the Holy See and other countries deem favorable to the true advancement of women. These points are indicated in the reservations which my Delegation has annexed to this statement.

My Delegation is confident that women themselves will overcome the limitations that are best in these documents.  As John Paul II has so well put it, "The path that lies ahead will be long and difficult; nevertheless we must have courage to set out on that path and the courage to go on to the end."

I would ask that the text of this statement, the reservations formally indicated below, as well as the statement of interpretation of the term "gender" be included in the report of the Conference.

Reservations and Statements of Interpretation of the Holy See

The Holy See, in conformity with its nature and particular mission, in partially joining the consensus on the Documents of the Fourth World Conference on women, wishes to express its position regarding those Documents, and make reservations on some of the concepts used in them.

1. The Holy See wishes to reaffirm the dignity and worth of women. At the same time, the Holy See firmly condemns all forms of violence against and exploitation of women and girls.

2. The Holy See reaffirms the reservations it expressed at the conclusion of the International Conference on Population health," on marriage as an equal partnership between husband and wife, to which the transmission of life is entrusted.  It regrets that in the Platform for Action references were not made to such a fundamental societal unit without banal qualifying language (cf. Strategic Objective L. 9).

3. The Holy See can only interpret such terms as "women's rights to control their sexuality," "women's right to control ... their fertility," or "couples and individuals," as referring to the responsible use of sexuality within marriage. At the same time, the Holy See firmly condemns all forms of violence against and exploitation of women and girls.

4. The Holy See reaffirms the reservations it expressed at the conclusion of the International Conference on Population health, and "reproductive rights."  In particular, the Holy See reiterates that it does not consider abortion or abortion services to be a dimension of reproductive health or reproductive health services.  The Holy See does not endorse any form of legislation which gives legal recognition to abortion.

5. With regard to the terms "family planning" or "widest range of family planning services" and other terms concerning family-planning services or regulation of fertility, the Holy See's actions during this Conference should in no way be interpreted as changing its well-known position concerning those family-planning methods that the Catholic Church considers morally unacceptable or concerning family-planning services that do not respect the liberty of spouses, the human dignity or the human rights of those concerned.  The Holy See in no way endorses contraception or the use of condoms, either as a family-planning measure or in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes.

6. The Holy See maintains that nothing in the Platform of Action or in other documents referenced therein is to be interpreted as requiring any health professional or health facility to perform, co-operate with, refer or arrange for services to which they have objections on the basis of religious belief or moral or ethical conviction.

7. The Holy See interprets all references to the term "forced pregnancy" as a specific instrument of armed conflict, in the context in which that term appears in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Part II, par. 38.

8. The Holy See interprets all references to the term "gender" as described in the statement annexed to these reservations.

9. The Holy See does not associate itself with the consensus on the entire Chapter IV Section C, concerning health; it wishes to place a general reservation on the entire section and it would ask that this general reservation be noted in the chapter.  This section devotes a totally unbalanced attention to sexual and reproductive health in comparison to women's other health needs, including means to address maternal mortality and morbidity. Furthermore, the Holy See cannot accept ambiguous terminology concerning unqualified control over sexuality and fertility particularly as it could be interpreted as societal endorsement of abortion or homosexuality.  The reservation on this chapter does not, however, indicate any reduction in the Holy See's commitment towards the promotion of the health of women and the girl child.

10. The Holy See does not join the consensus and expresses a reservation on par. 232(f), with its reference to a text (par. 97) on a right of women to "control over their sexuality." This ambiguous term could be understood as endorsing sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage.  It asks that this reservation be noted on the paragraph.  On the other hand, however, the Holy See wishes to associate itself with the condemnation of violence against women asserted in par. 97, as well as with the importance of mutuality and shared responsibility, respect and free consent in conjugal relations as stated in that paragraph.  The Holy See, with regard to the entire section on human rights, with the exception of quotations from or restatements of already existing human rights instruments, expresses its concern about an excessive individualism in its treatment of human rights.  The Holy See further recalls that the mandate of the Fourth World Conference on Women did not include the affirmation of new human rights.

11. With regard to the phrase "Women's rights are human rights," the Holy See interprets this phrase to mean that women should have the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

12. With regard to all references to international agreements, the Holy See reserves its position in this regard, in particular on any existing international agreements mentioned in the Documents, consistent with its manner of acceptance or non-acceptance of them.

The Holy See requests that these reservations, together with the annexed statement of interpretation on the term "gender," be included in the report of the Conference, Beijing, September 15, 1995,  between these points and Catholic social teaching.

Statement of Interpretation of the Term "Gender"
by the Holy See Delegation

In accepting that the word "gender" in this document is to be understood according to ordinary usage in the United Nations context, the Holy See associates itself with the common meaning of that word, in languages where it exists.

The term "gender" is understood by the Holy See as grounded in biological sexual identity, male or female.  Furthermore, the Platform for Action itself (cf. N. 193, c) clearly uses the term "both genders."

The Holy See thus excludes dubious interpretations based on world-views which assert that sexual identity can be adapted indefinitely to suit new and different purposes.

It also dissociates itself from the biological determinist notion that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern.

Pope John Paul insists on the distinctiveness and complementarity of women and men.  At the same time, he has applauded the assumption of new roles by women, stressed the degree to which cultural conditioning has been an obstacle to women's progress, and exhorted men to assist in the "the great process of women's liberation." (Letter to Women, n. 6)

In his recent Letter to Women the Pope explained the Church's nuanced view in the following way:  "One can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female" (n. 11).

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