How US abortion wars translated into battle over 4 words at UN

For some, it’s an attack on women’s health and rights. For others, it’s a welcome and long-overdue elevation of the sanctity of unborn life on the global stage.

After a couple of years of trying, the Trump administration appears to be making headway in its efforts to take its conservative views on reproductive health policies, including a war on abortion, to the United Nations.

But for many of the United States’ closest allies, from Britain to France and Germany, the initiative signals an alarming shift away from Western values they have long promoted together, including women’s rights and gender equality. Instead, they see their traditional friend and leader moving toward the camp of socially conservative countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others that have not been at the forefront of promoting women’s issues at the U.N.

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Starting early in the Trump presidency, the administration took a series of actions to strip reproductive health allocations from U.S. foreign assistance. Now the Trump administration has scored a victory in imposing the language of its staunch anti-abortion position in the international arena.

In the U.N. Security Council debate late last month over a German-sponsored resolution on sexual violence in conflict, the U.S. succeeded for the first time in having the words “sexual and reproductive health” stripped from a U.N. text. The U.S. threatened to use its veto if the offending phrase was not removed, and ultimately it was.

To many, the phrase might seem to offer little to fuss about, but removing it set off a caustic debate, revealing the deep fissures that continue to mark the international community over the issue of women’s rights.

For human rights advocates, removal of the words “sexual and reproductive health” from a U.N. resolution represents a worrisome setback for women’s equality globally, because the words had over the past quarter century become the standard phrasing used to confirm women’s rights, in particular access to prenatal care and other features of reproductive health, and to promote women’s empowerment.

Making matters worse, these advocates say, is that it is now the U.S. that has “switched camps” and is bringing the setbacks that American women’s reproductive health is facing domestically to the international stage. The wave of restrictive abortion legislation moving through a growing number of U.S. states and fomenting bitter debates on women’s rights is seen moving to the international arena.

“It’s not news to anyone how important this issue is to Trump’s base, but the U.S. bringing its culture wars to the Security Council is completely inappropriate when the protection of civilian victims of sexual violence – women and children – is what’s at stake,” says Anne Marie Goetz, a clinical professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and an expert in women’s empowerment in peace-building.

But to the community of socially conservative organizations and anti-abortion advocates, particularly in the U.S., the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” had become code for abortion. Worse still, its recurring use suggested to these groups a normalization of abortion and its spread into international policy.


For those organizations, the arrival in Washington of a socially conservative administration – both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are evangelical Christians who have said their faith directs them in everything they do – represented an opportunity to reverse the absence of anti-abortion convictions in U.S. foreign policy.

“We’re seeing this administration elevate the pro-life cause in foreign policy like never before, and we’re very grateful for the U.S. position on this [sexual violence] resolution, because it tells us things are changing,” says Stefano Gennarini, vice president for the Center for Legal Studies at the Center for Family and Human Rights, or C-Fam, in New York.

Mr. Gennarini calls accusations that the U.S. is infecting the consensus-driven policymaking at the U.N. with its own cultural battles “ridiculous” – but at the same time he insists it would be wrong to conclude that the arrival of a socially conservative administration in Washington means the global fight for “conservative family values” is won.

“Keep in mind that while it’s clear the pro-life cause is moving to the forefront of a conservative U.S. foreign policy,” he says, “it’s also true that the [abortion rights] side is more assertive also and is not about to back down.”

The U.S. position infuriated allies who have relied on American heft on the Security Council to help promote what for decades have been seen as common Western values – including the rights of women – and to ward off backsliding from those values.   

As the French ambassador to the U.N., Francois Delattre, told his council colleagues the day of the resolution vote, “It is intolerable and incomprehensible that the Security Council is incapable of acknowledging that women and girls who suffered from sexual violence in conflict – and who obviously didn’t choose to become pregnant – should have the right to terminate their pregnancy.”

Some women’s rights advocates said the U.S. action was particularly stinging because it comes at a time when sexual violence in conflict is on the rise and has gained global attention. Harrowing examples of victims of sexual violence in conflict – from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Yazidis and other victims of Islamic State – not getting care and being forced to carry to term the offspring of rape seem to have multiplied in recent years.


U.S. officials said during the debate on the resolution that while the U.S. agrees that more must be done to care for the victims of sexual violence, it could not agree to any language, explicit or implicit, that suggests acceptance of abortion. After the council vote, the White House indicated the adopted resolution was more “in line” with U.S. priorities.

Those priorities during the Trump administration have included setting a standard of “protecting life in global health assistance” that bars funding for foreign organizations that include abortion information or access among their services, and cutting funding in 2017 for the U.N. Population Fund, or UNFPA, the U.N.’s lead agency on sexual and reproductive health issues.

Dr. Goetz, who worked on women’s issues at the U.N. for nearly a decade, says the Trump administration has been making increasingly conservative appointments to U.S. government agencies, such as USAID and Health and Human Services, that play important roles in setting international policies on women’s health and empowerment.

Those appointees have sought to strike the “sexual and reproductive health” language from documents in other U.N. forums, such as the Commission for the Status of Women. But she says the U.S. has been unsuccessful there because other venues, including the U.N. General Assembly, work by consensus. Only in the Security Council does the U.S. have veto power.

U.N. officials are not happy about what the recent debate on the sexual violence resolution may portend for reproductive health globally, but they also suggest that, given a rising global clamor over abortion, and not just in the U.S., the outcome could have been worse.

“Of course it’s unfortunate that the words ‘sexual and reproductive health’ were taken out, but overall it is not a bad resolution,” says Arthur Erken, director of communications and strategic partnerships at UNFPA in New York. He notes that the resolution includes a reference to boys and men as victims of sexual violence in conflict – a first – and that it “reaffirms” the Security Council’s commitment to earlier resolutions on the issue in 2009 and 2013 – both of which include the “sexual and reproductive health” language.

“That tells me that even though the specific words may have been taken out, the resolution is still a confirmation of international support for getting vital services to the victims of sexual violence in conflict,” he says.


Indeed for Mr. Erken it is “unfortunate” that the issue of sexual violence in conflict got mired in a debate over wording, since on the whole the international community agrees that the scourge must be stopped, and that when it does occur its victims must receive care.

Noting that on average 830 women die each day during delivery or as a result of complications from pregnancy – 500 of those in conflict zones – he says saving as many of those lives as possible, often with simple provisions of basic maternal care or the presence of a midwife, is something all sides of a festering abortion debate can support.

And that takes Mr. Erken to a view of the evolution in U.S. reproductive health policy that is what he calls “finding the silver lining.”

Yes, he regrets the U.S. cutting of funding for UNFPA, but more because the agency values the prestige of American political support than because it needs U.S. dollars. (Other countries more than made up the gap when the U.S. pulled its funding.)

But Mr. Erken says the Trump administration has continued a long U.S. priority of saving women’s lives and empowering girls. And he notes that, for all the focus on the administration’s social conservatism and hostility to the U.N., Mr. Pompeo in October 2018 became the first secretary of state to hold a meeting with the executive director of UNFPA.

“He actually said there is more that unites us than divides us,” Mr. Erken says, “and we feel that is something we can work with.”

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