International Activists Push Abortion at UN With So-Called Maternal Health Rights

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 28, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

International Activists Push Abortion at UN With So-Called Maternal Health Rights

by Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D.
May 28, 2009 Note: Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D. writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Friday Fax publication.

New York, NY ( — Abortion rights advocates at the United Nations (UN) are pursuing a new approach – one that avoids mention of abortion, promotes a right to maternal health, and seeks to enforce "reproductive rights"norms among UN member States.

The reason for the shift seems to be an increased confidence among activists and UN officials that they have secured or are close to securing a new international right to abortion.

According to statements by Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others, their confidence has been boosted by winning legal cases, most notably in Colombia where the 2006 constitutional court’s decision to liberalize abortion was based upon the activist’s interpretation of UN treaties.

By creating a new “right” to maternal health over the next several years, advocates can consolidate gains while avoiding scrutiny by opponents. Then, once they are confident the new right is established, they can assert the claim that abortion is part of the new international obligation.

A blueprint for the legal dimension of the approach is the “International Initiative on Maternal Mortality and Human Rights.”

The initiative was launched in 2007 at a UN conference sponsored by the UN Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, which includes the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and various abortion rights organizations.

Indicative of the new approach is a recent “shadow report” on Brazil submitted to the committee that monitors the International Convention on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights (ICESCR).

Prepared by the abortion rights law firm Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), the report focuses on basic maternal health care such as skilled birth attendants.

One UN delegate described the new effort as “the motherhood and apple pie approach to abortion rights.” CRR recently backed its first model “case” in Brazil, sponsoring a complaint brought to the committee that oversees the Women’s Convention (CEDAW) by the family of a woman who died in childbirth which was unrelated to abortion.

In adopting the maternal health approach to abortion rights, advocates rejected more open approaches, such as the pursuit of a new UN treaty.

A 2003 internal memo outlining CRR’s legal strategy for the next 5 years stated that, “If, at the end of 2007, we determine that the existing norms are proving inadequate (as evidenced by the interpretations we seek) then we would reconsider whether to undertake a concerted effort to secure a new international treaty or addendum to address this gap.”

The memo, obtained by the Friday Fax and published in the U.S. Congressional Record, also stated that this should signal a shift from creating new norms on abortion rights to focusing on “enforcement mechanisms” at the international, regional and national level.

An important part of enforcement is linking reproductive rights to maternal health in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a link UNICEF and UNFPA claim already exists but which UN member states refute. According to UNFPA executive director Thoraya Obaid, obtaining a “reproductive health” target under the maternal health MDG 5 is essential to increasing global legitimacy and funding for the reproductive rights agenda.

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