Last week at a United States (US) House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that there was a new administration in place with different values, beliefs and global agenda. Nothing illustrated this rupture with previous US policy more than her admission that the Obama administration interprets the term “reproductive health” to include abortion.
In response to a question from Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ) on whether her definition of the phrases “reproductive health,” “reproductive services,” and “reproductive rights” includes abortion, Secretary Clinton stated that, “We [the current US administration] happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health and reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.”
Clinton’s linkage of family planning with abortion is not just a severe break with the previous administration; it is a clear violation of the Cairo Program for Action, which her husband’s government helped to negotiate in 1994. The Cairo document explicitly states in two places that abortion should in no case “be promoted as a method of family planning.”
Secretary Clinton’s statement of the current administration’s position is in stark contrast to previous US policy. Over the last eight years at the United Nations (UN), the US delegation made dozens of interventions underscoring that there is no international consensus on abortion. Up until the week prior to Barack Obama’s election, the US delegation at the UN stated that “sexual and reproductive health does not include abortion or constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion or the use of abortifacients” and that “none of these references can be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, for promotion of abortion.”
At the UN, nations regularly engage in heated debates over “reproductive health” language. When the term was introduced at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, states only agreed to its inclusion in the non-binding outcome document with the understanding that it could not be used to create any new right to abortion. More than 13 states also made explicit reservations to ensure that none of the terms related to reproductive health would be defined to include abortion.
To date, no international consensus on the precise meaning of the term “reproductive health” exists. At the Commission for Population and Development meeting earlier this month, several countries made explanations of position reiterating that there is no international consensus on the term “reproductive health” and that abortion should not be included as part of its definition.
The term “reproductive health” is currently the focus of legislation in a number of countries like the Philippines and contained in various declarations and proposals at the Organization of American States, the African Union and the UN. As the Philippines’ Constitution explicitly protects unborn life, its usage in national legislation excludes any abortion linkage.
For years, pro-life UN lobbyists have urged countries to issue strong interpretive statements to protect their laws on abortion.