U.N. Agencies Duck Taking Stand on Safe Abortion

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(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.

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."

Potential Contentious Debate

UN Women’s strategic plan had to go through its executive board, which is made up of 41 member states, some of which impose severe restrictions on abortion.

"Unfortunately, the discussion of these topics would have erupted into a contentious debate amongst member states, stalling the approval of the plan," says Margot Baruch, program coordinator at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, an academic research institute based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

It boils down to a systemic political failure, says Luisa Cabal, director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, the New York-based legal advocacy group. "The donor governments and major players need to demand leadership."

A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, the New York-based research group for reproductive health, identifies crucial gaps in global efforts to tackle unsafe abortion.

"Despite the international community’s growing attention to and resources for maternal health, many leading advocates, policymakers and donors–including the United States–are reluctant to even acknowledge the role of unsafe abortion in maternal mortality, much less address it directly," says the report.

The United States is the largest single international donor and many say its silence on the dangers of unsafe abortions has been a key obstacle to putting abortion on the global agenda.

"U.S. leadership is a big problem," says Barbara Crane, executive vice president of the global reproductive health advocacy group Ipas, which has U.S. headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C. Agencies of the U.N. "want to avoid controversy and they want to avoid offending the U.S. congress because the U.S. is such a major donor."

Global Gag Rule

In 2001, the Bush administration re-instated the Mexico City Policy or global gag rule, which prohibited U.S. aid from funding any group involved in abortion-related work. (It was called the gag rule because that prohibition extended to even talking about or counseling abortion or advocating for change in abortion laws.) The administration subsequently de-funded the U.N. Population Fund over allegations that the international development agency supported coercive abortion policies in China.

President Barack Obama reversed these decisions in 2009, but has been reluctant to push things further.

"He did rescind the global gag rule but they were very loath to do anything more proactive and there’s a lot more they should have been doing early in the administration when they had a lot of political capital," says Crane.

The Obama’s administration’s recent report "Women in America," commissioned by the White House Council on Women and Girls, was hailed as the first to compile comprehensive data on the status of women in the United Sates since 1963. But it stayed silent on the hot-button topic of abortion.

Obama is bound by the 1973 U.S. law known as the Helms amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. It prohibits U.S. aid from being used to promote "abortion as a method of family planning." He also faces a strong tide of conservative opposition, with state lawmakers this year introducing a torrent of anti-abortion laws. Some of the laws are designed to pick fights that go to the Supreme Court, where pro-choice activists assume the bench, on balance, is unfriendly.

Limitations in Europe

Even in Europe, only a handful of governments–the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland–have unequivocally endorsed abortion rights. Support from other key governments, including Australia, Canada and Germany, is missing.

UN Women told Women’s eNews that abortion laws can only be determined at the national level and subsequently fall outside of its mandate. But the agency is trailing far behind human rights jurisprudence and treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, the main frame for women’s international rights.

The CEDAW Committee has condemned restrictive abortion laws, along with other treaty monitoring bodies, including the Human Rights Committee (for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Committee against Torture.

Last year, the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that Ireland had violated the rights of a woman with cancer by denying her access to an abortion.

A trained physician, Bachelet, under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women, can be assumed to know the risks associated with unsafe abortion. As president of Chile – where abortion is illegal – she upset conservative religious forces by expanding the availability of the morning-after pill among young women. But she did not push to legalize abortion.

For Ipas’ Crane, the sidestepping of abortion rights by the U.N.’s primary advocacy group for women is a major disappointment.

"We need a mobilizing goal or target to inspire the international community to take stronger action on this issue," she says.

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Hanna Hindstrom is a freelance journalist based in London.

For more information:

U.N. Women:

White House Council on Women and Girls:

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women:

Guttmacher Institute:

3 thoughts on “U.N. Agencies Duck Taking Stand on Safe Abortion

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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