Reproductive Health

U.N. Agencies Duck Taking Stand on Safe Abortion

Monday, August 1, 2011

A woman's right to safe abortion is increasingly recognized as both a human right and a means to reduce maternal mortality. U.N. agencies--including UN Women in its new strategic plan--are sidestepping this major fight.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Broadly welcomed as a "milestone" for women's rights, UN Women's strategic plan released in early July sets out an ambitious agenda to improve the rights and opportunities of women around the world.

It outlines key goals to increase women's leadership and economic empowerment, end violence against women and promote global norms on gender equality.

One issue, however, is neatly ignored: safe abortion.

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The omission puts it in league with other U.N. agencies that are shying away from the politically volatile topic, despite mounting evidence that restricted abortion access contributes to maternal deaths and constitutes a violation of a woman's human rights.

Unsafe abortion is one of the three leading causes of maternal mortality, killing an estimated 68,000 women each year, according to UN Women. Yet Millennium Development Goal No. 5 – which aims to halve these fatalities by 2015 – makes no mention of unsafe abortions.

None of the U.N. agencies dealing with women's rights and maternal health – the U.N. Population Fund, the World Health Organization and now UN Women – has condemned restrictive abortion laws even though all have acknowledged their harm.

UN Women's flagship report "Progress of the World's Women," released last month, recognized that "the criminalization of abortion results in severe restrictions to women's rights." Although this language represents a landmark shift from previous reports, it has not translated into policy.

The agency maintains its support for the 1994 Cairo agreement, which accords U.N. member states the sovereign right to determine abortion laws.

"[Michelle] Bachelet is building her political capital within the U.N. and worldwide," says Carmen Barroso, regional director at International Planned Parenthood Federation. "She is also fundraising for an entity that is severely under resourced. In light of this, she will not engage on controversial issues such as abortion."

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While I understand the incredible difficulty inherent to writing a balanced, comprehensive piece on such a complex issue as abortion at the United Nations, I would like to share additional points I made during the interview that did not make it to publication.

While I do not believe that UN Women is likely to take a leadership role on safe abortion at the United Nations in the near future, my reasoning was more complicated than the article let on. In my full response, I stated that Bachelet is a strategic leader and advocate, and a solid proponent of abortion rights, two points that were not reflected in my quote. Further, since UNFPA has typically been the "lead" agency on abortion within the UN system, and given the fact that UN Women is a new agency with a relatively modest budget, one of the agency's big challenges is to "figure out what kind of role it can play vis-a-vis other agencies that work on women's rights issues or try to mainstream gender issues in their work."

Having said that, I also noted that abortion could be addressed within each of the UN Women priority areas such as violence against women. For example, abortion is legal in the case of rape in most countries, yet safe services are rarely available. UN Women could play a key role in expanding access in these circumstances.

Furthermore, as Marge commented yesterday, expanding access to safe abortion will only happen with the full participation of national governments and nongovernmental organizations including women's rights groups, human rights groups and sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates. As a founding member of GEAR and an advocate for safe abortion services, I am hopeful that we can work together to secure every woman's right to the quality health services she needs and wants.

Carmen Barroso

Regional Director

International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region

Dear Ms Hindstrom -- Please note an error made twice in your article. The full name of the UN agency popularly known as UNFPA is United Nations Population Fund. There is no UN Family Planning Association.
Paula Donovan
AIDS-Free World

Although the criticism of most of the UN agencies as regards taking a stance for safe, legal abortion is fair, I am sorry to see all the UN agencies tarred and feathered with the same brush as regards abortion. The World Health Organization's Department of Reproductive Health and Research and the joint UNDP/UNFPA/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction have consistently raised the issue of unsafe abortions in global meetings, with governments and through research; they have in the past done the main research work that assessed the safety and efficacy of medical abortion pills; they published guidance on safe abortion for health systems in 2003 and are in the process of finalising a 2011 revised and updated version of that guidance, which carries a lot of weight with governments; and they have carried out a lot of social science research on abortion and strategic assessments of abortion in a growing list of countries at the request of those countries' governments. All of these have led to major changes in how countries deal with abortion over the past 2-3 decades.

UN Women did not mention any aspect of sexual and reproductive health and rights in their first major document, nor any aspect of health except HIV, until some of us wrote to them. Similarly, UNIFEM, the precursor to UN Women and the source of many of their priority choices and staff, gave little attention to women's health issues, presumably on the grounds that these were left to WHO, UNAIDS and UNFPA. UN agencies do divide up what they focus on, though in relation to health, the division has become complicated and needs rationalising. This is not to say UN Women would take up safe abortion if urged to do so for the reasons mentioned in the article. However, it won't happen automatically either. If we want UN Women to take up any women's health issues, and abortion is not the only controversial or neglected one, more of us need to lobby them, send them our materials, and encourage people who make these issues a priority to apply to work with UN Women in all sorts of ways.

With best wishes,
Marge Berer
Editor, Reproductive Health Matters