For all George Bush's courting of Europe, when it comes to women's reproductive rights he is closer to Iran and Syria than the EU. In 1995, representatives from 189 countries met in Beijing and agreed a major program on women's equality and human rights - the Beijing platform for action. This statement was ambitious, and the UN commission on the status of women is currently meeting in New York to review its progress over the past decade.
The meeting was to publish a statement reaffirming international support for the platform for action. But the US has refused to support it unless it is amended to say that the platform does not create any new human rights or the right to abortion.
But it doesn't actually give the right to abortion. States are called on to "consider reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions", but the platform is clear that "any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process".
But that's not how the US is presenting it. Countries are being warned that failure to support the US amendment could allow the platform to be used to push through a "right to abortion" and take away the right of countries to determine their own laws. Activists are furious. Annette Lawson, of the European Women's Lobby, said the US is "simply trying to mislead the rest of the world".
This is not the first attack on the platform. At the Beijing Plus Five conference in 2000, Pierre Sane, the former head of Amnesty International, complained about "the unholy alliance formed by the Holy See, Iran, Algeria, Nicaragua, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Pakistan (that) has attempted to hold for ransom women's human rights at UN conferences". The climate of backlash has intensified since then, particularly following the election of Bush.
The US argues that its actions are simply aimed at preventing a "human right to abortion" being forced upon the world. But its real concern is preventing women from exercising the rights they already have.
Under Bush, the US has led attempts to reverse gains made on sexual and reproductive rights. One of his first presidential acts was to reinstate the global gag rule, which means any organization in the world that receives any US funding is banned from providing abortion services, including counseling or referrals for abortion.
The rule has forced family planning organizations to close clinics, cut services and increase fees. Shipments of US condoms and contraceptives have ceased to 16 developing countries. Family planning organizations in another 16 countries have lost access to condoms because they have refused to accept the restrictions.
It's not just abortion rights that the US is opposed to. At an Asian and Pacific conference last year on population and development, the US delegation tried to eliminate all references to condom use as a way of preventing the spread of HIV/Aids, insisting on a policy of "simple abstinence". The US was isolated, and its position was defeated by 32 votes to one.
At the start of last week, the US had looked similarly isolated, but its tactics of picking off one country at a time through a familiar combination of promises and threats appear to be working. The EU is standing firm, issuing a statement reaffirming its support for the platform and placing emphasis on the need to pay greater attention to sexual and reproductive health and rights. But some activists are worried that countries such as Poland and Malta are coming under intense pressure.
Fears of a US-led backlash have already affected UN activities on women's human rights. Activists were afraid that if the platform was open to revision, the rights set out in it might be rolled back. This is why the event taking place in New York is not a conference that could build on the Beijing agreements, but is simply a meeting to review progress.
Before the meeting began, it was already depressing that the best women could hope for from the international community was that it "reaffirm" a 10-year-old agreement. Now it looks like even that was wildly optimistic. But there are some things that give hope. More than 6,000 women (and some men) are attending the meetings. It may not be an official world conference, but organizations and individuals from around the world are meeting, sharing ideas and strategies. Ceri Hayes, of Womankind Worldwide, says that those attending are sending "a clear message to the world that the women's movement is alive and kicking". With the current US administration, a lively international women's movement with a good strong kick couldn't be needed more.
Mary-Ann Stephenson is a trainer and consultant on women's leadership.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.