In a speech last week at Howard University Law School, United States (US) Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Susan E. Rice recapped the Obama Administration’s foreign policy departures from previous Bush Administration policy. Rice also subtly redefined terms used in UN documents to mark a substantive policy shift on abortion.
Reviewing the new Administration’s first nine months in office, Rice touted Obama’s reversal of the “Mexico City policy” that had prevented US funding of organizations engaged in abortion overseas and his decision to fund the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). The Bush Administration had cut aid to the UN population control agency after the US State Department under Colin Powell determined that the UNFPA was complicit in China’s forced abortion policy.
Although in her Howard University speech Rice never uttered the word “abortion,” she claimed that the Bush Administration’s Mexico City policy had “barred U.S. assistance to programs that support family planning and reproductive health services,” and that now members of Obama’s UN team “no longer reflexively oppose mentions of reproductive health.”
William Saunders, Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs for Americans United for Life, noted however that the Bush Administration “did not oppose family planning or reproductive health care” per se, but “only opposed terminology or practices that promoted abortion.”
Addressing Rice’s subtle semantic shift, Saunders called Rice’s remarks “a return to euphemism” similar to what existed in the Clinton administration. He told the Friday Fax that Ambassador Rice “appears to be saying that the Obama administration is determined to promote abortion, but will do so while hiding under euphemisms.”
Administration watchers note that Rice’s apparent equation of abortion with “reproductive health” follows that of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s redefinition of the term to include “access to abortion” when questioned by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. UN member states have never agreed to such a definition, although pro-abortion UN agencies and advocacy groups routinely use it that way.
The linguistic shift could impact debate on US ratification of the Disabilities Convention. Although the Disabilities Convention is the first binding treaty to mention “sexual and reproductive health,” the official report of proceedings noted that inclusion of the term was “not intended to alter” pro-life policies of ratifying states, and at least 15 nations made statements in the General Assembly at the time interpreting “sexual and reproductive health” as excluding abortion. The Bush administration delegation affirmed that the phrase “cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion.”
The linguistic shift by Rice and Clinton gives ammunition to pro-life critics wary of US ratification of new treaties such as the Disabilities Convention.
Before assuming her post, Ambassador Rice lacked an obvious paper trail on contentious social issues. Criticism centered instead on her approach to Rwanda’s genocide while serving on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and then as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
Conservatives note, however, that Rice previously worked closely with former US Senator Tim Wirth, who advocated population control policies while serving as Undersecretary for Global Affairs during the Clinton administration and heading the US delegation at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.