We aren't entirely opposed to the use of the 'F' word," the State Department official quipped. Her "F word" was family, but this gave me scant comfort. Instead, it revealed the indifference of the U.S. Government to the idea of the family as a basic unit of society. The occasion was a briefing this spring at which U.S. diplomats were reporting to nongovernmental organizations on preparatory negotiations for September's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (see "Beijing's Bewildering Agenda" on p. 55).

The danger of the Beijing women's conference is that it attempts sweeping and unnecessary social change, which will not enhance the rights of women. Women are brutally denied basic human rights in many parts of the world. There are forced abortions and sterilizations, genital mutilation, forced prostitution, and denial of basic education and property rights. But the Beijing platform avoids naming not only many specific problems, it also does not list the guilty countries.

This United Nations conference in Beijing, activists hope, will adopt a massive Platform for Action, which aspires to transform the social order of every nation. For Christians, there are many critical matters at stake:

- Centrality of the family: The 1948 un Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society." But the Beijing platform downplays the family, while exalting the autonomous individual.

- Support for mothers: Similarly, motherhood is largely dismissed within the platform in favor of greater public responsibilities for women. These new responsibilities are linked to an understanding of "gender roles" as being "socially constructed," rather than having any biological basis. Eventually, all kinds of sexual behaviors will be recognized as protected "genders."

- Freedom of religion: Orthodox religious belief is sharply denigrated in the Beijing platform. Astonishingly, a document that addresses aids, environmentalism, reproductive health, and international economics neglects women's religious liberties, which are routinely denied in many parts of the world.

- International abortion rights: High on the U.S. list of agenda items for the Beijing conference is securing an international right for women to abort unborn children. Although a similar attempt was beaten back by conservatives in Cairo last year at the United Nations Population Conference, standardizing international abortion rights will again be hotly contested.

On another matter, the platform document promotes the idea that peace and development cannot be achieved unless women make up 50 percent of each nation's parliament and 50 percent of all economic and policy institutions. Achieving such a radical restructuring of the social order would require antidemocratic and coercive state authority.

To counter the Beijing platform, U.S. Christians should let First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the head of the American delegation to the Beijing conference, know their opposition to any government policy that erodes family systems. In addition, Christian women must not allow policy decisions that influence their lives to be made without their input. They should advocate policy changes to re-create worldwide a family-friendly environment by further securing basic human rights, freedom of religion, educational opportunities, and democratic political reform. If they do not, the public voice of Christian women around the world may be increasingly marginalized.

By Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a religious freedom and human rights organization.


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