WASHINGTON — The Trump administration took a bold stand recently against a decadeslong push by United Nations bureaucracy and certain countries to promote abortion worldwide without the consensus of the 193 U.N. member states.
Last month, the U.S. joined with 19 other countries to declare that “there is no international right to abortion.” Their statement also warned against ambiguous terms in U.N. documents that “can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensus and which can be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies.”
“Such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education, nor the sovereign right of nations to implement health policies according to their national context,” according to the statement. “There is no international right to an abortion and these terms should not be used to promote pro-abortion policies and measures.”
The statement followed a letter circulated by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar encouraging countries that agreed to sign. The countries that signed the joint statement alongside the U.S. were Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
When he read the statement at the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary Azar emphasized that “the diverse nations here today are united on a positive, constructive goal: focusing the international discourse around health care on better health and on the preservation of human life.”
Elyssa Koren, the director of U.N. advocacy at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, told the Register about the history of the use of ambiguous language by some countries and U.N. agencies to promote abortion that the Trump administration was addressing.
Koren said that the long-standing debate about abortion at the United Nations reached some agreement in the document that was signed by 179 U.N. member states in Cairo at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) , which she described as “a compromise all-around.”
“Pope John Paul II played a big role,” she noted. “The Holy See was very, very active. They made strong reservations, and so the document that came out: It’s not all good, and it’s not all bad.”
St. John Paul II wrote to the U.N. secretary general in 1994, before the ICPD, warning that the draft document for the upcoming ICPD had “a tendency to promote an internationally recognized right to access to abortion on demand, without any restriction, with no regard to the rights of the unborn, in a manner which goes beyond what even now is unfortunately accepted by the laws of some nations.”
Koren pointed out that as a result of intense debate among U.N. member states at the 1994 conference, in the final Cairo document, “they said that abortion shouldn’t be used to promote family planning. They also said that abortion should be determined by countries at the level of their national laws, which obviously means not imposed by the U.N.”
“Everybody came away from it saying: We did the best we possibly could, given the climate, and the fact that we all fundamentally disagree on these points anyway. So for the more conservative member states, the line has always been ‘maintain the ICPD; maintain Cairo,’” she emphasized. “We don’t want to go one step past that.”
However, Koren added that the ambiguity of the terms in the final Cairo document has led to attempts to include abortion in terms like “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights,” despite the document not defining abortion as part of those terms. In fact, the term “reproductive rights” is not mentioned at all in the document.
“If you go back to the ICPD and look up the definition of ‘reproductive rights,’ what does it say? It doesn’t say abortion; it doesn’t say anything,” she pointed out, and now it’s the same thing with “reproductive health.”
“Now, you have all these bodies acting out of Geneva, the treaty-monitoring bodies, all of these U.N. agencies [such as] UNFPA and U.N. Women, and they’ve all assigned the meaning of abortion to ‘reproductive health’ and to ‘reproductive rights’ and to ‘reproductive services,’” Koren said. “But if you go look at the ICPD and read the definition of ‘reproductive health,’ it doesn’t say abortion. It’s not defined anywhere, so that’s what [U.S. officials] mean by ambiguous.”
Koren said that the statement by the U.S. and the 19 other countries was important because those in charge of the U.N.’s bureaucracy “are supposed to be facilitating whatever the member states want to do, not dictating what the member states do.” But, instead, they are “putting forward positions … which they have no mandate to do.”
U.N. Agencies’ Advocacy
Grace Melton, the Heritage Foundation’s associate for social issues at the United Nations in New York, agreed, telling the Register that phrases like “sexual and reproductive health” or “sexual and reproductive health and rights” have been used increasingly by “abortion advocates and by the U.N. bureaucracy to include abortion.”
One example of this is when several special rapporteurs from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) wrote to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in June 2017 to advocate for self-induced and late-term abortion in the state of New York.
“We have called upon states to repeal restrictive laws and policies on abortion, particularly considering that they have discriminatory impacts and negate women’s choices about their own bodies,” the OHCHR rapporteurs wrote. “Concerns have been raised regarding the impact that criminalization of ‘self- abortion’ is likely to have on low-income women, who, due to limited means and reduced access to health care, are most likely to seek to terminate their own pregnancies and consequently most likely to be harmed by the current legislation.”
And Kate Gilmore, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights, told The Guardian in June that the Trump administration’s domestic and international abortion policies constitute “gender-based violence against women, no question.”
Gilmore added that it was like “extremist hate” and said it’s “clear it’s torture — it’s a deprivation of a right to health.” In support of this claim, she cited a little-known “Optional Protocol” that was passed by the U.N. General Assembly in 2002 regarding the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which stated that “the absolute prohibition of abortion … is against human rights.”
The Nairobi Summit
Koren said the upcoming Nairobi Summit, marking this year’s 25th anniversary of the ICPD, is another instance of U.N. agencies pushing for abortion regardless of the lack of consensus among member states. The summit is being hosted by UNFPA, Kenya and Denmark.
Obtaining “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights as a part of universal health coverage” is one of the five official “themes” of the conference, according to its website. Another one of the themes is “upholding the right to sexual and reproductive health care even in humanitarian and fragile contexts.”
The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam) reported last week that a draft of an agreement that will be presented by UNFPA at the upcoming Nairobi Summit “explicitly includes abortion in the ‘full range of sexual and reproductive health services.’”
Koren argued that UNFPA is likely “thinking ‘the ICPD is no longer really helping us out; we need to make something new’ — and so they are hosting this conference, under the guise of being an official U.N. conference, to basically replace the ICPD.”
“It’s not the general assembly, it’s not all the countries, and most countries that are with us on these issues are not even attending,” Koren said. “It’s only the U.S., because they have money and influence, that are bothering to attend and to say, ‘No.’ Most countries are just ignoring it.”
Melton called the Nairobi Summit “brazen,” in that “it’s really being led by UNFPA and the countries of Denmark and Kenya. … They’re acting as if this is an official U.N. review conference that will really reflect an updated debate of member states. But that’s not what it is.”
“They’re basically saying: ‘We’re going to pretend that the debate over abortion and what these negotiated terms mean doesn’t exist, and we’re just going to act as if we already won the language battle and kind of move on without whoever disagrees with us,’” she explained.
Melton told the Register that countries with liberal governments are a driving force behind this promotion of abortion by U.N. agencies.
“It’s really been an issue of some member states, the most liberal ones — typically the EU and Canada and Australia and New Zealand — trying to change the terms of what states have already agreed to,” Melton explained. “There’s been this push to include abortion within ‘sexual and reproductive health’; and that’s what Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Azar are really confronting head on now and saying: ‘Listen, states didn’t agree to this meaning a long time ago, you can’t just change what the words mean.’”
Melton said that these attempts to advance abortion rights without the broad support of U.N. member states are hardly novel, but that the Trump administration has been especially vocal in resisting such efforts.
“For previous administrations,” she noted, “the U.S. has often, in the past, made reservations, which is a legal term, at the end of conferences or when they are accepting a document, and they say ‘these are our reservations about the document; we don’t understand abortion to be a method of family planning.’”
However, she added, “The U.S. has never been as bold and outspoken in defending life at the U.N., so I think it’s really encouraging to see that.”
Melton also praised the Holy See’s consistent defense of life at the U.N. The Holy See put out a statement at the recent 74th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, decrying ambiguous language when it came to health care.
In the statement, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, wrote, “In particular, the Holy See rejects the interpretation that considers abortion or access to abortion, sex-selective abortion, abortion of fetuses diagnosed with health challenges, maternal surrogacy, and sterilization as dimensions of these terms, or of universal health coverage.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based correspondent.