The United States put the World Health Organization (WHO) on notice this week that it should stop its abortion activism. In two pointed statements, the U.S. delegation said that the bureaucracy at WHO must respect international consensus reached on sexual and reproductive health, and that abortion is not a human right.

Led by Kevin Moley, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, the U.S. announced an about-face on its stance toward a little-known but highly influential research arm of WHO’s reproductive health department, called the Program on Human Reproduction. The U.S. delegation expressed “deep concern” about the program’s activities and said the U.S. is “re-evaluating” its support. In 2004, the Program on Human Reproduction published a Global Reproductive Health Strategy calling for legal abortion.

The U.S. also complained that the Program for Human Reproduction gives “elevated status” to one non-governmental organization, understood as a reference to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, “to operate on an equal footing with governments and international organizations seemingly to the exclusion of other viewpoints.”

The U.S. also rebuked the WHO for its understanding that sexual and reproductive health includes abortion, a position that is at odds with the international consensus. Late on Thursday night, Dr. Alma Golden, representing the U.S. Agency for International Development, among the top funders of development in the world, told the assembly, “We have stated clearly, and on many occasions, consistent with the International Conference on Population [and Development] Program of Action, that we do not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance. The term sexual and reproductive health does not include the promotion of abortion nor do we recognize an international right to abortion.”

Established in 1972, the Program for Human Reproduction was first to insert “sexual and reproductive health” into the UN context through an internal report in 1992. That definition included abortion for fertility regulation. When the definition went public two years later at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development, nations pushed back. The Cairo document ended up putting abortion in a negative light and excluding abortion as family planning or as a human right.

The U.S. censure comes at the same time that WHO leadership is pushing abortion more openly than in the past. WHO’s executive director, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus has not followed his predecessor’s approach of balancing the views of liberal donor countries and traditional recipient nations. In comments on the secretariat’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, he included a reference to the controversial term “safe abortion.” In their statements this week, nations only “noted” the strategy and did not endorse it. In reply, the secretariat “noted” country concerns with it but said it would move ahead in providing reproductive health care services in humanitarian settings anyway.

The secretariat’s reference to humanitarian settings was a red flag for pro-life advocates who are concerned the WHO may promote abortion as a right in humanitarian settings.

Abortion advocates have been mounting a case for such a right through the laws of armed conflict. That body of law trumps national laws on abortion in the context of crisis and conflict. Delegates at UN headquarters in New York this week negotiated a humanitarian resolution in the General Assembly where the U.S. worked to keep sexual and reproductive health out of the agreement. The U.S. will face the issue, and European and Canadian opposition, again at the G-7 Summit in Canada next month.

Susan Yoshihara writes for the Friday Fax, from where this article is adapted.

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