Adapting to Norms at the United Nations: the Abortion-Rights and Anti-Abortion Networks

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This dissertation examines the practical effects of international norm construction for social movements attempting to navigate the UN system, specifically UN global conferences. Do norms become ingrained in the practices of intergovernmental organizations to such an extent that they hinder a movement with different norms or help a movement that conforms to them? In studying the UN and especially UN global conferences on issues of social significance, it has been argued that the norms stemming from classic Lockean liberalism, such as emphasis on individual liberties, a rights-based framework for developing policy, and progress through science and reason, are embodied in the procedures and frameworks of UN global conferences.

I compare the strategies and influence of the abortion-rights and anti-abortion movements over time at the UN, particularly through the International Conferences on Population and Development, and trace how each movement has adjusted its strategies to accommodate the normative context it has encountered at the UN. I use a combined structural and agency-oriented framework that identifies the concrete mechanisms and processes through which the interplay of movement ideology and institutional-normative context may constrain or facilitate a social movement's actions within the UN system.

What I've found in my research is that the abortion-rights network has had more success in actually influencing the debate and changing the language of population policy to reflect their goals, whereas the influence of the anti-abortion network can really only be measured by the language that they have blocked. But it is important to note that both the abortion-rights network and the anti-abortion network have adjusted over time to the UN in terms of their strategies, which is interesting because of the more progressive character of one, and the conservative character of the other. However, the progressive and conservative characters of the two movements still affected how easily each movement adapted to these norms at the UN, and the success of their strategies in that forum.