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February 8, 2019 (C-Fam) — The United States pushed back on attempts to insert abortion into the World Health Organization's resolution on universal health coverage at the agency's just concluded executive board meeting.

The executive board adopted the resolution on February 1st. The issue has become a priority for UN agencies.

The resolution mentioned existing international commitments to provide “universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services” and “integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs.” This sparked intense closed-door debate. After its adoption, the United States dissociated itself from “reproductive health terminology” which “has evolved to include abortion.” The U.S. delegate's statement explained that such language has been used to pressure countries to change their abortion laws and normalize teenage sexual activity.

The resolution will be presented for adoption by the World Health Assembly, which meets in Geneva this May.

Abortion advocates were also disappointed with the resolution, which they said did not go far enough to promote universal access to abortion. Women Deliver declared that the discussion of universal health care would be “fruitless” if it did not include “sexual and reproductive health and rights” which “includes … access to safe abortion [and] comprehensive sexuality education.” That is a different formulation than the one included in the resolution.

Other abortion groups submitted statements to the executive board calling for governments to remove “laws that criminalize certain services, such as abortion [and] third party authorization requirements, such as parental or spousal consent.”

Despite a flurry of editorials expressing their wish lists, feminists and abortion advocates admitted they failed to achieve most of their goals in the final resolution. For example, in the board meeting, the Netherlands was disappointed that the WHO report on achieving the UN's 2030 agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals, referred to Goal 3 on health, but not Goal 5 on gender equality.

While some European countries and pro-abortion organizations were outspoken about the need to include SRHR, the enthusiasm was not widespread. The greater debate focused on issues such as balancing intellectual property rights with the provision of access to medicines for all.

Meanwhile, the fight over SRHR language will continue at the UN General Assembly. In December the UN resolved to hold its first high-level meeting on universal health coverage later in 2019.

The U.S. delegation's strong condemnation of “reproductive health” terminology accurately describes the way seemingly innocuous words in obscure resolutions can have harmful effects around the world. But the words remain in the resolution regardless. The U.S.'s dissociation from them does nothing to stop the WHO from promoting abortion in other countries. The phrase “reproductive health” is widely interpreted as including abortion, both in the U.S. and internationally. As an example, the recent state law in New York expanding abortion rights is titled the “Reproductive Health Act.”

The United States took a similar position last year with the Astana Declaration on primary health care. While the phrase “reproductive health” appeared in the declaration, the U.S. insisted on the inclusion of a clarifying footnote. It recalled the caveat from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development stating that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.”

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will go beyond making statements and disassociating from the language and block consensus on an agreement in order to make sure the controversial phrase gets deleted.

Published with permission from C-Fam.


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