Can the UN Change the Church's Views on Abortion and Gay Rights?

The short answer: No. So why is one committee trying?


On Wednesday, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a long report on the Vatican that has gotten attention for its sharp criticism of the Catholic Church’s response to clergy sex-abuse scandals. But perhaps more remarkably, the study also critiqued the Church’s stance on abortion and birth control.

Specifically, it recommended that the Holy See “overcome all the barriers and taboos surrounding adolescent sexuality that hinder their access to sexual and reproductive information, including on family planning and contraceptives,” and suggested the Vatican “review its position on abortion … with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” The committee also made broad criticisms of the Church’s posture toward LGBTQ families and children. The Holy See has responded with a statement defending the Church’s right to define its own religious beliefs and teachings.

The Vatican, which has “permanent observer” status at the UN, is a signatory to the UN’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child along with 193 countries and two island nations. Notably, the United States is one of three countries that haven’t ratified the treaty; the other two, Somalia and South Sudan, have both pledged to ratify the agreement soon.

So, if a UN committee finds Church teachings to violate the human rights of children, what can it do to the Holy See? The short answer: nothing.

“There’s no legal obligation under the treaty to follow the recommendations of the committee,” said Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra University’s School of Law. “The committee itself is formed by the treaty … and it’s just housed at the UN.”

That doesn’t mean the body’s findings aren’t influential, though. “The primary power [committee members] have is to release this report and get it picked up by activists and the media,” Ku said. “To the extent that there are groups that can pressure the Holy See, they can use this report to say look, you’ve failed in this respect.”

Ku explained that the 18 people who drafted this list of recommendations for the Vatican aren’t actually part of the UN—they’re academics, non-profit leaders, and sometimes, as he put it, “activists” (the members are from countries around the world, including Ghana, Italy, Bahrain, Ecuador, and Russia). Every five years, the countries that signed the convention are supposed to report on how things are going in their countries, and the committee’s job is to read these reports and react to them. That’s what these recommendations are: a reaction to the Holy See’s progress on protecting children.

It’s important to keep in mind that these reactions are based on a specific interpretation of the treaty, though—and an “aggressive” one at that, according to Ku. “The committee is essentially interpreting the treaty in a way that the Holy See doesn’t agree with,” Ku said. “In the treaty text itself, there isn’t a whole lot that’s objectionable. In fact, there’s probably a whole lot that the Holy See likes.”

As Ku notes, there isn’t specific language about LGBTQ rights, the appropriate circumstances for abortions, or birth-control education in the convention at all—at most, it refers to “guidance for parents and family planning education and services.” But the meaning of “family planning” is somewhat unclear.  “When [the Holy See] signed the treaty, they did not interpret the words ‘family planning’ to include contraceptives,” Ku said.

So how did the committee arrive at its conclusions? Legal considerations, public-health concerns, and perhaps even ethics may have played a role. But that raises a question: Should a committee formed by a UN treaty be commenting on the religious teachings and beliefs of one of the world’s major faiths?

The committee and the Holy See seem to be approaching the issue of human rights in starkly different ways. The committee sees its job as assessing how the Church protects children, and it believes this includes giving young women tools to prevent or even terminate pregnancy. It also believes LGBTQ rights are part of this mission; the committee expressed concerns about “past statements and declarations on homosexuality which contribute to the social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents and children raised by same sex couples.” The report doesn’t specify whether revising these “declarations” means allowing gay marriages, encouraging priests to come out, or just creating more open communities.

But the Church doesn’t see abortion and birth control as simple human-rights issues—they are also bound up in the meaning of being human, the origins of life, and the definition of marriage. Is it reasonable to expect a religious organization to change some of its core teachings based on a UN committee report?

On the other hand, as Ku said, the committee exists to influence the public sphere: They’re offering “professional criticism” of practices they see as problematic for human rights. If the religious beliefs of 1.2 billion people are going to be shaped anywhere, perhaps the public sphere is the best place for that to happen.