In 1994, the United Nations coordinated the first International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which resulted in the Programme of Action that formally recognized the right to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights (SRHR), including the right to safe abortion where legal. This followed decades of opposition, where long-standing contestations have mainly focused on access to safe abortion, comprehensive sexuality education and modern contraceptives.
The program provides a framework for SRHR to be included in health policies at the national level. Studies have since shown that the recognition of SRHR and the implementation of sexual and reproductive health services has had dramatic impacts on the improvement of maternal health and the reduction of maternal mortality and unwanted pregnancies.
Global Pandemic Exposes Gender Inequality
However, conservative coalition building at UN negotiations against SRHR has expanded from previous contestations to the rejection of any mention of previously agreed references to SRHR. This has come about amid vocal objections by the Trump administration. These objections are not simply rhetorical pronouncements as they have in fact succeeded in removing references to SRHR in UN resolutions. In 2019, the Trump administration threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution on sexual violence in conflict if it contained a reference to “sexual and reproductive health.” This reference was subsequently removed.
Since Donald Trump took office, references to safe abortion have disappeared from the Commission on the Status of Women outcome documents, and the word “sexuality” has been removed from “comprehensive sexuality education” to place emphasis on the role of families and “age-appropriate comprehensive education” instead.
Statements submitted by the United States show the attempts to replace SRHR with patriarchal, heteronormative, family-based language that excludes individual rights. These obstructions have found support among far-right populist groups that have incorporated opposition to SRHR into their political rhetoric and have found a powerful ally in the current US government. Globally, far-right populism has seen a resurgence in nationalism that emphasizes “traditional family values and gender roles.”
With the common EU position historically supporting SRHR in international forums, right-wing populist movements within the European Union in recent years have challenged this position in UN negotiations. This is having devastating consequences for women, girls and members of the LGBTQI+ community, particularly in low and middle-income countries where health services are provided through global health assistance.
On his first day in office, President Donald Trump reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy (MCP), also known as the Global Gag Rule, which prevents US global health assistance from being used to not only provide safe abortion services but also from going to organizations that simply impart information on abortion or refer patients to other providers. Since then, rates of unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion and maternal deaths have increased. The MCP forms part of the politics of silencing the issue of abortion from the Trump administration which, according to Louise Allen and Laura Shepherd, “must be read through the lens of the Trump Administrations continued war on women.” With the elections in the United States currently underway, President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative who has “publicly opposed access to contraceptives and abortion services,” to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court and is quickly trying to force her nomination through the Senate. Having already stated that she thinks Roe v. Wade, which ensures access to safe abortion services, was an “erroneous decision,” there is a risk that having another conservative judge on the Supreme Court could see it overturned.
Protection for the Unborn
However, domestic politics on abortion do not remain an issue in the United States alone as the Trump administration is using all methods of foreign policy at its disposal to wage its opposition to SRHR in international forums. It is an example of one county’s ability to influence policies and programs in other nations.
Even the global COVID-19 pandemic could not halt anti-SRHR activities. The United States voted against the UN General Assembly Omnibus Resolution on the pandemic, stating that one of the key objections was that it does “not accept references to sexual and reproductive health” and “sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” going on to declare that “The United States believes in legal protections for the unborn.” Early research has also shown that some countries that have banned non-essential medical services during the pandemic have specifically included abortion. In Lithuania, the minister for health stated that women who are seeking abortion services should use their time in lockdown to rethink their decision, while in Poland, the ruling party tried to pass bills that would essentially ban abortion as well as sexual education.
This increasing global anti-SRHR agenda creates multiple concerns. The broader populist anti-SRHR agenda could continue even if there is a change in government in the US after the November election as opposition to women’s rights is already on the agenda of far-right governments. It could also mean that commitments that do not solely focus on SRHR may be prone to accept its omission in order to be passed. This could then lead to the absence of SRHR becoming a new normal, instead of the hard-fought-for package deal from the UN’s program of action.
The potential for watered-down SRHR language, or elimination of SRHR entirely, could reverse the progress of the ICPD, leading to a rise in maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions worldwide.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.