Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. (C-Fam) .-
A recent publication of the United Nations Population Fund illustrates several troubling trends at the United Nations: the constant push to hint at a human right to abortion, the glut of special experts on the human rights system, and the trend of one language and the problematic ideas to migrate from one organism to another.
In December, UNFPA published a guidance document on how to apply a human rights-based approach to its work in family planning and maternal health. The original mandate of UNFPA was established in 1994 by the International Conference on Population and Development. But the new report argues that various United Nations bodies have discovered new “human rights.”
For example, in 2016 the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued “General Comment 22” that UNFPA says it details the obligations to guarantee the right to abortion.
This observation, as well as any other “elaboration” issued by the treaty monitoring bodies, is not binding. The text of the treaty itself is binding, but only for countries that have ratified it. But the comments of the United Nations committees are not binding on the states that have ratified the treaty.
The United States, for example, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the monitoring body of which published “General Comment 36” in 2018. According to UNFPA, this comment “finds an obligation for States to provide safe, legal access and effective abortion ”in certain exceptional cases, such as rape, incest, fetal infertility and when the life or health of the mother is in danger. Again, this comment is not binding on the United States or on any other nation that has ratified this document.
Abortion has never been an international human right, and neither UNFPA nor the United Nations human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies, have the power to make it a right. However, the suggestion that such a right exists has been consistently enforced by the treaty bodies and then echoed by other parts of the United Nations system, including UNFPA and the World Health Organization.
UNFPA, in particular, has tried to establish a fine line on the abortion issue for decades. When the United States, under President Trump, cut its funding due to its promotion of abortion and complicity in China’s longstanding one-child policy, UNFPA repeatedly claimed that it “does not perform, promote, or finance abortion.” At an earlier executive board meeting, some of UNFPA’s evaluators suggested that it could do more to promote abortion, while praising its “quiet leadership” in getting abortion-causing drugs on the essential drugs lists of several countries.
The President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, has indicated his intention to restore funding to UNFPA. Still, as the UNFPA communications director has repeatedly said, other countries have taken up the initiative more loosely. In September, he was quoted on PassBlue bragging about the agency’s unprecedented support, largely from Europeans and Canada. “So we have more money than we have had in the history of UNFPA.”
It is clear that pressure from treaty oversight bodies and subsequent support from legislators and judges will increase in the coming years. The way governments can protect themselves is to assume the role of “persistent objectors,” a concept in international law that would stop a customary right to abortion. The recently published Geneva Consensus Declaration does just that.