Critics warn of bias in UN anti-torture committee member

The United Nations flag flies outside UN Headquarters, September 20, 2011. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

A U.N. committee member who insinuated that the Catholic position against abortion violates an anti-torture agreement signed by the Holy See should recuse herself or step down on account of bias, several critics have said.

Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the U.S.-based Catholic Association, said American Felice Gaer should recuse herself from writing the U.N. Committee on the Convention Against Torture’s report on the Holy See because she is “clearly beholden to the interests of the abortion lobby” and has shown “she does not think the Church has a right to its religious teachings.”

“Our own country’s representative to this committee actually argued on more than one occasion that opposition to abortion amounts to psychological torture for women,” McGuire told CNA May 16.

“Not only was this a scandalous violation of religious liberty, an important value outlined in multiple U.N. documents, but it’s plain false. As the Holy See pointed out, the torture in the case of abortion is against the unborn and defenseless child.”

The U.N. committee conducted a hearing with a Holy See delegation in Geneva May 5-6 regarding the Holy See’s adherence to the anti-torture convention.

Gaer, who formerly chaired the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, is now the vice-chair of the anti-torture committee.

She used the May meeting as an occasion to press the Holy See delegation about Catholic opposition to abortion. She said that the U.N. committee has found that laws prohibiting abortion in all circumstances violate the convention.

Arguing that women “should have the right to choose abortion,” she asked the delegation to respond to criticisms that its position against abortion requires pregnant 9-year-olds to give birth.

McGuire said that some committee members, including the committee chair, have shown a “strong ideological preference for abortion” and are being lobbied by “anti-Church and pro-abortion groups” like the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

“This is nothing but a frontal attack on the Church's moral views and a hijacking of a committee with a clearly-defined purpose,” McGuire said.

The committee also pressed the Holy See delegation on sexual abuse.

McGuire compared the committee hearing to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child’s February 2014 report on the Holy See, which used a discussion of the international children’s rights convention to criticize the Vatican on sex abuse and to condemn Catholic teaching on homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, while calling for changes in Catholic doctrine.

Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has filed a complaint against Gaer, contending that she “compromised her objectivity.”

“Given Felice Gaer’s unquestionable bias toward the Roman Catholic Church, she is not suited to maintain her membership on the Committee Against Torture,” his May 15 complaint said.

Donohue said that she used “incendiary rhetoric” and “highly politicized accusations” taken from the Center for Reproductive Rights’ April 14 report on the Holy See.

Gaer’s claim that the absolute ban on abortion violates the anti-torture convention is similar to language used in the pro-abortion rights group’s report. Gaer cited a quotation from the European Court of Human Rights on abortion that appears in the report, Donohue said. Her comment about Peruvian and Nicaraguan bishops who work against abortion “dovetails exactly” with the report.

Donohue, citing the rules governing treaty body members, said members of committees are required to be and to appear “independent and impartial.” They should avoid any real or apparent bias against states. They should “neither seek nor accept instructions from anyone concerning the performance of their duties.”

McGuire said the committee on the anti-torture convention meeting “should have been a routine country review of the Holy See.”

“That the abortion lobby does not protect the interests of women or children is not news,” she said. “But the fact that they are sending representatives to attack the Church at the U.N. in Geneva shows their extremism and how far they are willing to go.”

“The Church continues to need the laity, especially women, to stand up and defend the Church and explain to the world the truth about abortion hurting women and children.”

On May 2, ahead of the committee hearings, Father Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See Press Office, praised the principles of the anti-torture convention. However, he also warned against NGO pressure groups with a “strong ideological character and orientation” that are attempting to influence both the U.N. committee and public opinion.


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