By Nancy L Cohen, Thursday 6 December 2012 10.55 EST
I couldn’t sleep at night if I were a senator and did not vote for this.
So said Steven Rothstein, a leading advocate for the disabled, to the Boston Globe on the eve of the US Senate vote to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Apparently, 38 Republican senators decided they’d rather lose sleep than lose their jobs.
The US Senate’s rejection of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the clearest sign yet that reports of the death of the Republican right have been much exaggerated. Tuesday’s vote was the first post-election test of the state of play in the GOP’s inner civil war. It revealed that the religious extremists behind 2012’s “war on women” are still in command of the Republican party.
Since the disabilities treaty attracted scant attention before its ignominious defeat at the hands of the Republican minority on Tuesday, some background is in order. The treaty, like the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act on which it was modeled, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and supports their full participation in society. It’s an admirable goal, targeting a real problem.
In the developing world, 90% of disabled children do not attend school. Millions of disabled people worldwide are excluded from jobs and education, a result of discrimination and the lack of accessible facilities. The treaty has wide support. Over 300 disability organizations and 21 military veterans’ groups favored ratification; 126 countries have already adopted it. Even the United States Chamber of Commerce was on board.
As the preamble to the treaty states, its purpose is to “ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”. So, who could be against that?
Start with failed GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, who last week used his disabled daughter, Bella, as a political prop, toting her into the Senate to inveigh against the treaty’s supposed attack on parents’ rights. Writing later for the Birther website World Net Daily, for which he is now a paid columnist, Santorum insinuated that the convention invested the UN with Solomonic powers to decide whether his disabled daughter Bella should live or die.
Then, there’s Michael Farris, political mastermind of the Christian home-schooling movement, one of the best-organized and most hardline factions of the religious right. He raised the specter that the UN would prohibit parents from home-schooling their disabled children and even take them from their homes. In fact, the treaty explicitly states, “in no case shall a child be separated from parents on the basis of a disability of either the child or one or both of the parents.”
But most importantly, anti-abortion activists, from Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, to Concerned Women for America and the Susan B Anthony List PAC, charged that the treaty promoted abortion and mobilized to get it voted down. The offending passage came in Article 25, calling for governments:
“[To] provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable healthcare and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes.” [my italics]
Perhaps sensing that wasn’t sufficiently terrifying, Perkins claimed the treaty would lead to forced “sterilization or abortion for the disabled – at taxpayer expense.”
You can read the entire treaty here. You will notice that not one of these charges has merit. No matter. Santorum, Farris, Perkins, Schlafly et al successfully activated the rightwing base, who then flooded GOP senators with tens of thousands of calls and tweets demanding they reject the treaty.
And so they did. The treaty fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.
Now, few US senators want to get caught on C-Span saying UN bureaucrats are planning to euthanize disabled American children, sterilize God-fearing Americans, and send them the bill. So the religious extremists offered them a slightly more appealing cover story, one that the conservative media establishment helped spread: the disabilities treaty threatened US “sovereignty”.
The assertion was specious and widely debunked. The treaty required no change to US law; it deeds no substantive power to United Nations agencies; the expert committee created by the convention is charged only with reviewing reports from member nations and issuing recommendations to improve access and rights for the disabled. Even the typically buttoned-up Washington Post editorial board found the charges worthy only of withering sarcasm: “Suggestions from foreign experts! The horror!”
Still, even that kooky notion about “sovereignty” – originating in the far-right paranoia of the cold war era – seemed less of a risk to GOP leaders than alerting the broader American public to what was really going on. The same folks who brought us the “legitimate rape” club and birth control inquisitions were calling the shots. The religious right drew a line in the sand over the disabilities treaty – and all but eight Republican senators couldn’t muster the courage to step over it.
Two senators recently heralded for their bipartisan overtures, Saxby Chambliss and Lindsay Graham, voted no. Another noticed the treaty was going down, and changed his vote from yay to nay during the roll call. Only one Republican facing re-election in 2014, Susan Collins, dared to vote yes. So much for a chastened Republican party.
The vote was shameful and, to be blunt, a clear defeat for the Democratic party. The right was, in part, testing the waters to see how much leverage they retained over the GOP and within Congress. Meanwhile, Democrats and progressives barely noticed what was happening to the treaty before it was too late.
Let this serve as a wake-up call. The time for electoral self-congratulation and celebration is over, and the hard work begins again. The culture war over women’s rights, gay marriage, abortion, and birth control continues. And this battle reminds us that America’s holy warriors have always also had international ambitions.
The sooner we accept that the post-election GOP remains a hostage to its religious extremists, the better chance we have of accomplishing meaningful change and solving our real problems during Obama’s second term. The world might thank us.
Illustration by Darren Diss.