Activists Use Stealth “Reproductive Rights” Campaign to Push Abortion at UN

International   |   Marie Smith   |   Jul 25, 2014   |   9:55AM   |   New York, NY

Great debate is taking place at the United Nations over inclusion of “reproductive rights”–interpreted to include access to abortion–in the new set of priorities for the world which is set to take effect on January 1, 2016 after the current eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015. The process is moving forward as the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals completed its work with an outcome document that includes access to “reproductive rights”.

The OWG leads the inter-governmental process of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to devise new sustainable development goals as mandated in the “The World We Want” outcome document from the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro. Regrettably, the co-chairs Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya, and Csaba Kőrösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary, allowed highly contentious and controversial language on “reproductive rights” to remain in the final outcome document which includes 17 goals and 169 targets.

unitednations5Great debate occurred over inclusion of “sexual and reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” in Goal 5; a separate informal negotiating group was formed by the co-chairs but it failed to reach consensus. Much of the debate occurred during informal negotiations; countries opposed use of “reproductive rights” believing that it refers to access to abortion and conflicts with their national pro-life laws. The controversial target remained in the text:

Proposed Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Target 5.6, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and      reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the ICPD and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.

Lobby efforts promoting not only “reproductive rights” but “sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)” were intense throughout the negotiations, especially in the final days and hours. Countries remained divided as developed countries pushed for insertion of SRHR and in the case of the United States sought to remove reference to the Programme of Action of the ICPD which acknowledges the sovereignty of national laws on abortion. Countries from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Mid-East opposed any inclusion of SRHR and many objected to target 5.6 on “reproductive rights”.

The inclusion of “outcome documents of their review conferences” in this target was a late revision to the report resulting in loud objection from many States who are keenly aware of the radical content of various outcome documents from ICPD and Beijing Platform for Action review conferences. Countries strongly protested the failure to achieve consensus, considered critical to the work of the United Nations, in closing statements.

The 13th session of the OWG was brought to a close with twenty countries still waiting to speak when Co-chair Kamau– realizing that the OWG had failed to achieve consensus and unwilling to keep working on the controversial areas following marathon negotiations– called for approval of the final report by “acclamation” resulting in applause by some states. Countries that had expressed reservations or made inquiries of the chairs felt ignored as their questions and concerns were left unanswered and the co-chairs made a speedy exit.

According to “The Future We Want”, paragraph 248, the OWG report will be submitted to the 68th session of the UNGA for “appropriate action” and will be reflected as part of the full range of inputs in the synthesis report that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be writing and presenting on the SDGs in November.

Delegates hope, and expect, that negotiations will continue during the General Assembly meeting in September having concerns that the targets ignore the mandate in “The World We Want”, paragraph 247, that states the goals and targets must be “universally applicable to all countries, while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”.

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The promotion of “reproductive rights” fails to take into account different national policies on abortion and is not universally applicable. Many countries value the lives of children in the womb and seek to make abortion rare. Only 4 countries allow unrestricted access to abortion throughout pregnancy– the U. S., China, North Korea and Canada– 58 countries allow broad access to abortion on demand while the remaining countries ban abortion completely, allow abortion only for a life of the mother exception, or restrict access to abortion according to various policies.

Inclusion of a target on access to “reproductive rights” requires the creation of indicators, another major concern.  An indicator on access to “reproductive rights” that follows the language of the ICPD would have to ensure that where abortion is legal, it is “safe”, (for the mother).  97% of countries allow abortion for at least one exception. How will the “safety” of abortion access be measured in these countries? The World Health Organization’s 2012 document, Safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems, Second edition, lists indicators for “safe abortion”; similar indicators can be expected in the SDGs for any legal exception to abortion. Included are:

  • Number of facilities offering safe abortion services per 500,000 population
  • Percentage of health-care providers trained to provide safe abortion services to the full extent of the law
  • Percentage of population with correct knowledge of the legal status of abortion
  • Percentage of service-delivery points that use WHO-recommended methods for induced abortion [This includes use of the abortion-inducing drug Misoprostol which is often used to circumvent laws against abortion.]

PNCI notes that the process to shape “The World We Want Post 2015” will continue until September 2015 when the new sustainable development goals are expected to receive final adoption. The debate over “reproductive rights” will continue as well.

Pro-abortion activists are prepared to fully engage in the post 2015 process to advance international access to abortion. Are we ready to defend the right to life of the most defenseless and ensure that “The World We Want Post 2015” includes all children and not just the perfect, the privileged and the planned? Note:  Marie Smith is the director of the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues.