I will never forget what I saw in Manhattan the morning of September 11, 2001, as I looked south from the corner of 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue. The cars were gone, replaced by a horde of people on foot hurrying north with expressions of confusion and panic. Behind them loomed a mushrooming cloud of smoke as if an atomic bomb had just exploded. America was under attack, and the world would never be the same.
As the heart-wrenching images of devastation were broadcast worldwide, few knew that there was another attack in progress in Manhattan, an attack that ironically had been interrupted by the assault on the World Trade Center. Earlier that morning, I had left my hotel and begun walking toward the United Nations for another day of negotiations in preparation for the upcoming Special Session on Children. As a representative of an NGO committed to protect children and promote the family, I was surprised at how divisive and protracted the meetings had become. Anticipating yet another long day inside the cavernous chambers of UN headquarters, I relished the fresh air and crystal blue sky that greeted me that beautiful morning. Perfect fall weather, I remember thinking.
The moment I came within sight of the UN, I could see that something was wrong. A large crowd was gathering, fed by people arriving and others being evacuated from the building. Police and National Guard were on hand, and we were told of a security concern arising from the fact that a jet had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Waiting for word that it was safe to proceed, we were finally advised that the UN was closed, and we were urged to return home immediately. It was then that I walked up to Second Avenue and saw the surreal scene that was shutting down the UN and most everything else in Manhattan.
When negotiations for the Special Session on Children later resumed, they were more divisive than ever. The Special Session was intended to review progress since the 1990 World Summit for Children, which had been convened following adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It was not the first time the nations of the world had joined in an effort focused on the world’s children. In its 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the UN acknowledged that “mankind owes to the child the best it has to give,” and even defined what “best” is: “The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security.”
But the CRC, for all of its laudable efforts to protect children from poverty, violence, and disease, yet contained a fundamental flaw by insisting on children’s autonomous rights vis-à-vis their parents—rather than their rights to be protected, nurtured, and taught by their parents in a stable, loving family relationship. And by shrouding itself in the rhetoric of rights, the CRC sought to divert attention from its radical failure to honor every nation’s obligation to society’s foundational unit for the benefit of children and all humanity, as acknowledged in Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
Or, as we have stated in our World Family Declaration, “The family exists prior to the state and possesses inherent dignity and rights which states are morally bound to respect and protect…. We declare that a functional, nurturing family founded on marriage between a man and a woman provides the surest safeguard of the special care and assistance to which children are entitled.” The CRC turns this truth on its head by seeking to superimpose the power of the State between children and their parents, thereby, in the incisive words of Bruce and Jonathan Hafen, “abandoning children to their rights.”
The Special Session on Children, held May 8-10, 2002, was a showdown of those two radically opposing views, with the battle continuing through the final night before adoption of the outcome document. I was repeatedly told by seasoned delegates that they had never seen such divisiveness in UN negotiations, as powerful NGOs such as International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), with their coffers of money and web of connections, sought to undermine parental influence by promoting children’s autonomous “rights,” especially to “sexual and reproductive health.”
But the outcome document, A World Fit for Children, turned out to be a testament to the tenacity and courage of a number of remarkable delegates, led by the Bush Administration delegation and joined by others, with whom several of us were privileged to work. Besides excluding all proposed references to “reproductive health services,” the final document contained pivotal language (paragraph 37, chapeau) that makes all the difference in how the specified “strategies and actions” must be carried out: by “taking into account the best interests of the child, consistent with national laws, religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of the people.”
It was the most significant pro-family language in any major UN document for over a decade, and it infuriated IPPF. Months later at a UN meeting I attended in Bangkok to which the US had sent a delegation, IPPF’s chief publicly railed against the US for what had happened at the Special Session, and vowed to take back the lost ground. The fight continues to this day, now intensified by a rogue US Supreme Court decision and a tidal wave of American policies directed at indoctrinating the nation’s children on issues such as abortion, sexual “rights,” same-sex marriage, transgenderism, critical race theory, and the nihilistic cancel culture—all in all the greatest assault on children in history.
But the truths once recognized by the United Nations—that children deserve the best mankind has to give, and are entitled to be raised by their mother and father in the refuge of a loving family—remain true no matter how many conferences or congresses or courts declare otherwise. “What Children Really Need: Another Way to Look at Children’s Rights” is the title of a timeless article critiquing the CRC by IOF founder Dr. Allan C. Carlson, who lists as the first of those rights the right to a mother, the right to a father, and the right to a home built on marriage. Many are the needs of children in our dangerous and changing world, and while we laud all efforts to improve their lives and protect them from the ravages of poverty, violence, and disease, yet any program or policy that undermines their truly foundational rights is ultimately disastrous.
Not long after the Supreme Court handed down the 5-4 Obergefell decision, Sherif Girgis wrote of “our duty to the least of our brothers and sisters, Christian or otherwise—to vindicate children’s right to wake up each morning under the same roof as the mother and father whose love gave them life.” And as constitutionally and societally defective as Obergefell is, said Girgis, it did not change “the basics.”
In every age—not just ours—one thing or another is falling apart, and errors are spread, and the faith is under attack. In every age, amid the pandemonium, God gives us each a call, some plot of creation to prepare for his final restoration: kids to rear, friends to keep, projects to pursue, prayers to offer, tough conversations to have, workplaces to leaven with diligence and spiritual witness. And in every age, we have no idea how or when he will gather the fruits into a new creation. Our job is to be faithful and of good cheer, for even now he has overcome the world (John 16:33). St. Thomas More, who died partly for refusing to tell a lie about marriage, tells us not to abandon the ship in a storm just because we can’t control the winds. That’s easier to do when we know that our job on deck, however small or seemingly futile, is assigned in love by him whom even the wind and the seas obey (Matthew 8:27).
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as we remember the horrific destruction wrought by terrorists and the inspiring heroism of firefighters and others that fateful day in Manhattan, we must not forget that the increasing attack on our children calls all of us to rise up and be the heroes they need.