Three Republicans helped pass the United Nations treaty on people with disabilities out of committee on Thursday despite concerns over abortion.
Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) joined the 10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has the support of advocacy groups across the country. Proponents say it would merely require the rest of the world to catch up to the United States' high standards created by the Americans With Disabilities Act while protecting Americans with disabilities abroad, but opponents — including a number of home-schooling groups — have raised concerns about international standards being imposed on America.
Abortion was the only issue to divide lawmakers along partisan lines.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed language saying the treaty “does not create any abortion rights.” All nine Republicans on the panel voted for it.
But Democrats said that would have allowed treaty signers to discriminate against people with disabilities — refusing to provide the full range of family planning services under domestic law — in violation of the spirit of the treaty. Instead, Kerry offered an amendment saying the treaty does not address “the provision of any particular health program or procedure,” meaning the treaty doesn't create any new abortion rights beyond the duty not to discriminate against people with disabilities.
The anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List however said abortion itself is often a form of discrimination against people with disabilities.
"Ironically, when special needs children are identified in the womb, they often become a prime target for abortion," SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. "Over 90% of children diagnosed with Downs syndrome in utero have their lives abruptly ended. Abortion in no way promotes the rights and dignity of people with disabilities."
Lawmakers also sparred over how far to go in requiring that the United States not be required to change its domestic laws. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has led opposition to the treaty, fought for a reservation to the treaty but was voted down when Sens. Lugar, Barrasso, Isakson and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) joined Democrats who offered a less binding declaration.
DeMint's language would have stated that the United States “does not accept any obligation under the Convention to enact legislation or take other measure in any fashion”; alternative language from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) merely has the Senate declaring that “current United States law fulfills or exceeds the obligations of the Convention.”
“The last thing we want as a country is for our courts to deem some of our disabled policies against the law, because they're different,” DeMint said. “Because we want them to be better than what the United Nations can do.”
But Kerry said DeMint's language amounted to a “sweeping statement that [the treaty] doesn't mean anything.” Rather, he said, the United States, by signing onto the treaty, is vowing to abide by the standards set forth in the Americans With Disabilities Act, which turned 22 on Thursday.
Supporters of the treaty hope to get it to the Senate floor before summer recess at the end of next week. Ratification requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 senators.
This post was updated at 4:40 p.m. with comment from the Susan B. Anthony List