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UN Women's Conference Opens Amid Abortion Controversy

Six-thousand delegates descended on the U.N.'s New York headquarters Monday for a high-level meeting to reaffirm commitments to women's rights. The gathering - dubbed Beijing plus Ten - is devoted to assessing the progress made since the Fourth Conference on Women in the Chinese capital in 1995.

Addressing a packed General Assembly hall, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the gathering a milestone on the path to equality.

"Ten years on, women are not only more aware of their rights, they are more able to exercise them," he said.

Mr. Annan pointed to progress on many fronts, including improvements in life expectancy and fertility rates, more girls enrolled in primary education, and more women in the labor force. But he also noted a number of disturbing trends that threaten the march toward gender equality.

"We have also seen new challenges emerge," he said. "Consider the trafficking of women and children, an odious but increasingly common practice. Or the terrifying growth of HIV/AIDS among women, especially young women.

Talk on the sidelines of the conference has been dominated by the divisive issue of abortion rights.

A draft declaration being considered would reaffirm a platform of action adopted at the Beijing conference. But U.S. delegates have expressed concern that the Beijing platform might be interpreted as legalizing abortion as a human right.

At a closed-door meeting last Friday, U.S. representatives offered an amendment to the declaration stating that the Beijing platform should not be interpreted as creating any new internationally recognized human rights, including the right to abortion.

U.S. delegate Ellen Sauerbrey said Washington's position is that countries should be free to decide whether or not abortion should be legal. She told reporters the Bush administration does not believe reproductive health, referred to in the Beijing platform, necessarily means abortion.

While most of the speeches tread lightly over the issue, it is a hot topic in smaller gatherings. Vena Madunagu of Nigeria, says reproductive health issues are foremost in the minds of many attending the conference.

"It used to be a taboo in Africa to talk about those issues, but no longer," she said. "We now talk about issues of abortion as a public health concern, and the governments are taking it on board. Look at my country is one of the highest in terms of the rate of maternal mortality as a result of unsafe abortion, so it's really a public health issue."

Secretary-General Annan referred only indirectly to the abortion issue in his speech. He called for full implementation of the Beijing platform.

Conference chairperson Kyung-wha Kang told reporters she considers the Beijing platform and the proposed New York declaration as policy documents, and not a legally binding statement of human rights.

Negotiations on the New York declaration are expected to continue on the sidelines of the conference over the next two weeks.