HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Ideological Resolve: The Courage to be Cruel

It began as an anodyne treaty. The United Nations issued yet another rights-of-humanity opus. The UN has regularly voiced its support for “human rights”, condemning torture, poverty, and racism, after deliberations to iron out a consensus on decency. And countries, however totalitarian the regimes, have generally signed those treaties. After all, these are principles, not edicts; and even grand torturers don’t want to be known as grand torturers. There is no Nobel Prize for cruelty.

In 2006, when the United Nations launched the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (, no American politicos objected. And when it came time to ratify the treaty, over 100 nations, including China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia signed on. Even Afghanistan came on board. Since the UN has little clout, other than rhetorical, why not endorse grand principles of decency?

This treaty proclaims: “the inherent dignity and worth and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Countries are supposed to remove barriers to employment, to health care, to education. Or try to remove them.

The treaty praises the family, calling it “the natural and fundamental group unit of society … entitled to protection by society and the State.” Surely that would win kudos from American politicians, who uniformly revere “family.” And right-to-lifers should cheer: “States Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.” The treaty mentions contraception, but stresses that people with disabilities must have the same rights as their able-bodied counterparts; i.e. the “right … to marry and to found a family on the basis of free and full consent of the intending spouses”; the right “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to age-appropriate information, reproductive and family planning education,” Crucially, “Persons with disabilities, including children, retain their fertility on an equal basis with others”. Hardly a eugenics plot, but instead a full-fledged commitment to people with disabilities and their families – both the families they are born to, and the families they wish to create.

In fact, in 1990, the US Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which inspired much of this treaty.

What a surprise when this rhetorical flourish sparked an ideological assault. (Dana Milbank, “Santorum’s new cause: opposing the disabled,” Washington Post, Nov. 26). This fall the US was poised to sign the treaty – almost a pro forma endorsement of principles spelled out in our country’s disability rights legislation. Yet right-wing folks lined up to protest this treaty as dangerous. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, with current Utah Sen. Mike Lee, led the assault. Thirty-seven Republican colleagues joined Lee in voting against the treaty on Dec. 4 – enough to block approval during this lame duck session.

Some opponents raised home-schooling as a deal-breaker: they said that this treaty would strip families’ ability to home-school their children. In arguing against the treaty, Santorum brought his home-schooled daughter, born with a disability, to a Senate hearing on the treaty. Yet their fear is specious. The treaty doesn’t bash home-schooling. It sets a standard for a nation’s schools, calling them to educate all children.

The prime objection is to the United Nations. These politicians loathe it. They see it as a subversive world-entity out to usurp our country’s laws (even though the ADA inspired much of the treaty). To cite the national Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA): “it will subject our sovereign nation to international law.” One senator argued that the treaty’s call for “economic, social and cultural rights” of the disabled marked a “march towards socialism.”

The opponents call their stance courageous. After all, it would be politically expedient to sign this treaty. Key Republicans, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have endorsed it. And it is politically hard to spurn support — whatever the rationale — for people with disabilities. I can foresee the next election’s campaign videos from these senators’ opponents, showing the nay-sayers’ voting “nay,” against a backdrop of Americans in wheelchairs.

The goal of the treaty is an inclusive society, where all “members of the human family” enjoy their “inalienable rights” in a free just, and peaceful world. A Utopian future, but not for this crop of rabid ideologues.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2013

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