At U.N., Activists Vie With Vatican Over Abortion
Paul Lewis

New York Times, April 4, 1999

UNITED NATIONS-In a novel twist to the fight over legal abortion, an organization of Roman Catholic activists has begun a drive to demote the diplomatic status of the Vatican at the United Nations, though in reality it only hopes to curb its lobbying style.

Catholics for a Free Choice, which says it has 8,000 members and disagrees with the Catholic Church's traditional opposition to abortion and birth control, is leading a coalition of more than 70 similar voluntary organizations seeking to downgrade the Vatican status from "permanent nonmember state observer" to a more modest "nongovernmental organization."

As one of only two such nonmember observer states, along with Switzerland, the Holy See, as the Vatican calls itself at the United Nations, is entitled to take part in U.N. policy-setting conferences and to vote on the recommendations they issue just like any member government of the organization. Although the Vatican cannot vote in the annual General Assembly, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have addressed the world group, and the Vatican's permanent observer addressed its 10th special session on disarmament.

By contrast, other Christian sects like the Anglicans and the Methodists, as well as major faiths, such as Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, are represented by accredited nongovernmental organizations that have none of those privileges. They may only address policy-making U.N. meetings by invitation and cannot vote on recommendations, though they can lobby delegates in the corridors.

"It is time to challenge the Vatican's pretense to be a state," said the Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "Why should a few acres of office space and tourist attractions in the center of Rome have a voice in making United Nations policy? The Roman Catholic Church deserves the same nongovernmental status as the World Council of Churches or any other religious body," she said last week in an interview. "To insure the United Nations does not promote one particular religious view, religious entities like the Catholic Church should not be given the status of a nonmember state," said Anika Rahman, of the Washington-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

So far Catholics for a Free Choice and its allies have distributed 5,000 postcards to other nongovernmental organizations accredited here. They are addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and ask him to open "an official review of the Holy See's status at the United Nations." A further 15,000 postcards have been printed and will be given to other interested organizations in countries around the world.

Supporters of the campaign to demote the Vatican, which was begun in late March, readily concede their aim is to curb the ceaseless campaign it wages to stop the world organization from doing or saying anything that even appears to condone abortion or artificial contraception or to weaken what it sees as traditional family values. In particular, they resent the bargaining strength the Vatican enjoys through being able to vote at international policymaking meetings, which traditionally try to reach consensus. "By threatening to force a vote they compel opponents to compromise," Ms. Kissling said. The Vatican delegation to the United Nations declined to comment on the effort.

The Vatican first started to take part in such U.N. conferences through its membership in the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunications Union, since it issues stamps and runs a radio station. In 1957 the Vatican changed its name at the organization to Holy See and in 1964 Secretary General U Thant granted it permanent observer status on his personal authority.

In a paper titled, "Church or State: the Holy See at the United Nations," Ms. Rahman argues that by calling itself the Holy See the Vatican has ceased to meet some of the definitions of statehood laid down in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. Although it can undoubtedly enter into relations with other states, she argues that the Holy See, which describes itself as "the supreme organ of government of the Catholic Church," cannot possess a defined territory or a permanent population since it says it governs a universal church. Finally, since the Holy See is itself "the government of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican City" it cannot be "an entity that possesses a government."

But many international lawyers question those arguments partly because the Vatican still acts like a state but mainly because all U.N. members have accepted it as a state for more than 30 years.