US pushes for language on ‘avoiding abortion’ in new UN resolution on humanitarian response

Photo of United States position at United Nations ECOSOC meeting.
Photo of United States position at United Nations ECOSOC meeting. (Ben Parker/TNH)

US diplomats want to insert language about “avoiding abortion” into an annual UN resolution on meeting humanitarian needs around the world. 

A text submitted by US negotiators states that countries should include “voluntary and informed family planning, and other options to avoid abortion… as components of humanitarian response.” 

 

The US position is “regrettable”, according to a senior NGO official. “Guaranteeing access to sexual and reproductive health saves lives and it’s a basic human right,” said Catarina Carvalho, Geneva representative of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. “You cannot address or combat SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] if you don’t ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services,” Carvalho said.

 

The final text is to be voted on on Wednesday afternoon, and a late draft obtained Tuesday by The New Humanitarian does not include the changes demanded by the United States. The US can again request edits before the vote on Wednesday, diplomats said.

 

The move follows successful US lobbying to alter references to “sexual and reproductive health” in international agreements, notably in a recent UN Security Council resolution about rape and other forms of sexual violence.

 

“It’s a political campaign, with a religious flavour,” said a UN official familiar with the issues; by changing the language, the US is attempting to “limit the conversation” about abortion, and pressure aid groups to avoid discussion, the official noted. 

 

The UN staffer, who asked to remain anonymous due to diplomatic sensitivities, said “it’s an assault on women”, whose risk of gender-based violence increases in conflicts.

 

The US bans any recipients of US government grants from offering abortion services or referrals or advocating for abortion law reform. The so-called “Mexico City Policy” was first applied in 1984 by president Ronald Reagan and has been switched on and off by successive administrations, most recently being set aside by president Barack Obama. It’s also known by critics as a “global gag rule” and was reinstated in 2017 by the Trump administration, which has expanded its reach in 2019.

 

A document obtained by TNH shows requests from US negotiators to alter the UN resolution currently under discussion in Geneva. The text under negotiation is an annual resolution on: “Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations”. 

 

It is a routine text signed off by the member states of the UN by consensus as part of an annual meeting on humanitarian issues under the Economic and Social Council, a body of the General Assembly. Its humanitarian affairs segment is meeting this week in Geneva.

 

The US delegation had asked for changes to two paragraphs in the 2019 resolution. Both make changes to boilerplate clauses that appeared last year. The United States did not object to the same language when it was included in the 2018 version:

2018 resolution text (extract)

2019 draft from US diplomats

Encourages Member States, in cooperation with relevant United Nations humanitarian organizations, to ensure that the basic humanitarian needs of affected populations, including clean water, food, shelter, energy, health, including sexual and reproductive health, nutrition, including school feeding programmes, education and protection, are addressed as components of humanitarian response, including through providing timely and adequate resources, while ensuring that their collaborative efforts fully adhere to humanitarian principles

Encourages Member States, in cooperation with relevant United Nations humanitarian organizations, to ensure that the basic humanitarian needs of affected populations, including clean water, food, shelter, energy, health, including sexual and reproductive health, nutrition, including school feeding programmes, education and protection, maternal health care, as well as voluntary and informed family planning, and other options to avoid abortion are addressed as components of humanitarian response, including through providing timely and adequate resources, while ensuring that their collaborative efforts fully adhere to humanitarian principles

Urges Member States, in cooperation with relevant United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, to ensure reliable and safe access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, as well as basic health-care services and psychosocial support, from the onset of emergencies, and in this regard recognizes that relevant services are important in order to effectively meet the needs of women and adolescent girls and infants and protect them from preventable mortality and morbidity that occur in humanitarian emergencies;

Urges Member States, in cooperation with relevant United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, to ensure reliable and safe access to sexual and reproductive health-care services critical and life-saving healthcare and support for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as basic health-care services and psychosocial support, from the onset of emergencies, and in this regard recognizes that relevant services are important in order to effectively meet the needs of women and adolescent girls and infants and protect them from preventable mortality and morbidity that occur in humanitarian emergencies, acknowledging that abortion is subject  to individual laws in the Member States, including in humanitarian situations, and is not a right under international law;

The changes asked to remove the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” from a list of needs for people living in crisis situations. This phrase has been removed from other UN texts in the last two years under US pressure.

 

The edits by the US – in an email dated 22 June and shared with The New Humanitarian by a party to the negotiations – go further: they proposed that humanitarian response should actively seek to reduce abortion by including “options to avoid abortion”.

 

In a note attached to the proposed changes, the US wrote that: the “UN should not be in the business of promoting abortion, whether in its humanitarian or development work, and its reports should not advocate for the creation of new human rights regarding sexual and reproductive health. The United States supports efforts toward universal access to health care but rejects efforts to ascribe abortion, falsely, as a human right.”

 

The UN official commented: “We are going back on choice, going back on rights.” 

 

Instead of the term “sexual and reproductive health”, the US proposed substituting the following: “maternal health care, as well as voluntary and informed family planning, and other options to avoid abortions.” 

 

The phrase “sexual and reproductive health” has been a compromise phrase used in international negotiations since 1994, and it can include safe abortion (in countries where it is  legal).

UPDATE: The US changes to the ECOSOC resolution were rejected 30-2, with nine abstentions, in a vote held on 26 June. Only Jamaica voted with the United States.

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