At United Nations headquarters this week, countries participated in a special high level event to discuss progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Declaring that MDG 5 to improve maternal health has seen the least progress of all the MDGs, participants emphasized good basic health care, not “universal access to reproductive health,” as the best ways of reducing maternal mortality.During the discussions on the health-related MDGs, countries lamented that maternal mortality rates remained unacceptably high and focused their attention on the two proven methods of reducing maternal deaths – increasing skilled attendants at birth and improving emergency obstetric care.
In the lead-up to this week’s high level meeting, top UN officials like Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid have stressed “universal access to reproductive health” to reduce maternal mortality, a theme she repeated at a separate side event co-sponsored by the governments of Chile, Finland and Tanzania. Ban Ki-Moon’s 2008 report on the MDGs laments that “universal access to reproductive health remains a distant dream in many countries.”
In 2000, when UN member states agreed to adopt eight broad, largely non-controversial Millennium Development Goals which address issues like eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and reducing child mortality, “reproductive health” was deliberately left out. None of the MDGs makes any mention of “reproductive health” and neither does the Millennium Declaration upon which they are based.
When the MDGs were first negotiated, abortion advocates like International Planned Parenthood Federation launched aggressive campaigns to get a separate goal on “reproductive health.” Those efforts failed and advocates have attempted instead to attaching “reproductive health” to the existing MDGs.
Abortion advocates declared victory in 2007 when “universal access to reproductive health” appeared as the “target” in the annex of a report from then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Since then, despite consistent pushback from countries such as the United States that no new target on reproductive health has been approved by the members of the General Assembly, top UN officials have pushed the reproductive health target on member states as though it was an agreed target under the MDGs.
Pro-abortion groups have used the reproductive health target to promote the legalization and liberalization of abortion laws, claiming that countries now have an obligation to provide “safe and legal abortions” because of their commitments to reduce maternal mortality.
Concerns remain that the maternal health goal will be used to push abortion. While the word “abortion” was never mentioned at the special side event, the heads of state of both Chile and Finland spoke about access to “reproductive health services.” This contrasted with the statements of the Tanzanian president who stressed the need for basic obstetric health care.
The primary outcome of the high-level event will be a Secretary-General’s summary of the discussions from this week, as well as a compilation of the commitments made by states and members of civil society. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also be asking states to agree to an MDG review summit scheduled for 2010.