Istanbul: Defending the Family
by Richard Wilkins

I first became involved with issues of family policy and society in June 1996 when, almost by accident, I attended a UN Conference in Istanbul, Turkey. The Conference, known as Habitat II,1 was the culmination of a decade-long series of conferences designed to develop a "blueprint" for international (and ultimately domestic) legal relations during the coming century.2 These Conferences have been accurately perceived as significant international law-making events.3 They have also followed a predictable (and extreme) ideological course primarily championed by a powerful lobby that, according to one scholar, "ha[s] marginalized parents, ignored the family, denigrated cultural and religious values and enshrined reproductive and sexual health."4 What made the Istanbul Conference remarkable was that it departed from this set course.

As a result of an unusual series of events, I was selected to give a short four-minute speech before one of the drafting committees at the Habitat Conference. The speakers who took the podium before me urged the conferees to recognize same-sex partnerships, increase funding for adolescent sexual reproductive services, provide 18 to 20 hours a day of government-sponsored daycare, and take all "necessary steps" to insure that every woman was "fully employed" outside the home. Marriage and family, if noted at all by these speakers, were referenced primarily as institutions that reinforce odious cultural stereotypes and that subjugate and demean women. My message was rather different.

I began my remarks by informing the conferences that the family - as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other important UN documents - is the fundamental unit of society. It is the fundamental unit, moreover, precisely because it is the laboratory where little boys learn to love, respect and work with little girls, and where little girls learn the same essential skills in dealing with little boys. I reminded the delegates that, if we don't learn these skills within the home, there is little chance that we will learn them elsewhere. Accordingly, I urged the delegates to do what they could to strengthen the family, rather than expend the vast majority of their energies creating substitute social structures.

I pointed out, for example, that extensive studies had shown that the incidence of teenage pregnancy and abortions actually increases following the initiation of "traditional" sex education programs that emphasize the teaching of technical sexual "know-how," including the use of prophylactics. By contrast, however, the incidence of adolescent pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted disease is actually reduced through family-based education programs.

At the conclusion of my short remarks, I emphasized the essential message of the First Presidency's Proclamation on the Family: that there is a "fundamental connection" between a decent society and "the reinforcement of strong, stable families." The family, I reminded the delegates in Istanbul, is the necessary foundation for ... larger communities because it is the sanctuary where women and men learn cooperation, sacrifice, love, and mutual support; it is the training ground where children learn the public virtues of responsibility, work, fair play and social interdependence. The basic structure of society, I asserted, "is built upon the fundamental values fostered by strong families." I concluded by urging the conference to consider seriously the need to protect traditional values in drafting and implementing the Habitat Agenda.

The reaction to the speech was remarkable. Many of the speakers who had preceded me at the podium hissed as I returned to my seat. But most of the delegates in the audience gave me a standing ovation. Indeed, after the speech, I was approached by the Ambassador from Saudi Arabia who embraced me warmly. "Where have you been?" he asked. Next, he asked a very important question: "What can we do?"

I gave the Ambassador a short list of items that could be changed in the draft Habitat Agenda that would strengthen, rather than weaken, the family's central role. Thirty-six hours later, the Heads of the Arab Delegations in Istanbul issued a joint statement, announcing to the entire Habitat Conference that its members would not sign the Habitat Agenda unless (and until) certain important changes were made.

As a result, and at the insistence of the Heads of the Arab Delegations, several very important changes were made in the Habitat Agenda. Instead of defining "marriage" and/or "family" in a manner that explicitly legitimated same-sex marriages and families (as did the original draft), the final Habitat Agenda defined the marital relationship as one between "husband and wife."5 Instead of numerous explicit paragraphs mandating world-wide abortion on demand, only one (somewhat hedged) reference to "reproductive health" remained.6 The Habitat Agenda, finally, formally recognized the "family" as "the basic unit of society" that "should be strengthened."7

These developments, viewed from the perspective of current American and European legal trends, are significant. The Habitat Conference sent a strong message that strengthening the family - not the simple recognition of more "rights" or the creation of additional substitute social units - is the answer to many of our modern problems.

This message, of course, is obvious. The family is the basic unit of society and must be strengthened. But the fact that this message is obvious has not prevented us from ignoring it. During the past 50 years, American and other societies have been much more preoccupied with the individual and the individual's rights than with the basic social unit within which individuals survive and thrive. The consequences are now becoming apparent around the globe.


1. The first Habitat Conference had been convened by the UN in 1976 in Vancouver, Canada.

2. The series of conferences began in 1992 with the Rio Conference on the Environment. Other Conferences included the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, the Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development in 1995 and the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing that same year.

3. E.g., Nafis Sadik, Reflections on the International Conference on Population and Development and the Efficacy of UN Conferences, 6 Colo.J. Int'l L.&Pol. 249, 252-53 (1995) ("More than any previous events of their kind, these conferences have fostered the mobilization and participation of civil society and the private sector in the affairs of the international community. . . . The process has nurtured the growth of democracy at the national level and democratized processes at the international level increasing their transparency and accountability").

4. Mary Meaney, Radical Rout, National Review, Jul. 15, 1996, at 25, 26.

5. In the original draft, the Habitat Agenda stated that "[i]n different cultural, political and social systems, various forms of the family exist." This broad sentence, in the same paragraph that provided that all family forms are "entitled to receive comprehensive protection and support," would almost certainly have extended legal protection to same-sex marriages. Draft Habitat Agenda par. 18. The final version of paragraph 18 now adds that, while "various forms of the family exist," "marriage" arises out of the "free consent of the intending spouses, and husband and wife should be equal partners." Habitat Agenda, Chapter II, Goals and Principles, par. 18. Thus, "marriage" involves "spouses" who are "husband and wife."

6. The draft of the Habitat Agenda prior to debate in Istanbul contained over 28 explicit references to abortion. All of these references were dropped and replaced with a single admonition that governments "should" (not "must" as in the earlier draft) "ensure universal access for women throughout their life-span to a full range of affordable health care services, including those related to reproductive health care." Habitat Agenda, Chapter IV, Global Plan of Action, par. 96(d)(bis) (emphasis added).

The underlined words, "related to," were added to clarify that abortion was not necessarily part of "reproductive health care." Prior to the Habitat Agenda, "reproductive health care" had been defined by the World Health Organization (a UN Agency) as including the "interrupt[ion of] unwanted pregnancies." The "related to" language was designed to insure that "reproductive health care" did not automatically include the "interrupt[ion of] pregnancies."

7. Habitat Agenda, Chapter II, Goals and Principles, Par. 18.



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