The Fight over Abortion in the UN’s New International Development Agenda


Pro-life countries must arm themselves against the UN’s intense pressure toward population control, while at the same time supporting and holding the UN accountable to its legitimate development objectives.

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This past fall, world leaders gathered at the United Nations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a sweeping global agenda that will guide all international development initiatives until the year 2030. Now that the ceremonial celebrations have subsided and the much-anticipated visit of Pope Francis has come and gone, the UN must determine what it means actually to implement the sprawling agenda, consisting of seventeen Goals and 169 Targets across the globe.

The next step is to create a comprehensive set of “indicators” by March 2016 that will be used to track countries’ progress in meeting the Goals. Rather than fostering true development, it is highly probable that the UN will attempt to use these “indicators” to advance abortion and “sexual rights”—unless countries are prepared to check these efforts to encroach on their sovereign laws.

Although largely unknown outside the UN, the SDGs will have monumental implications for the entire world. They set forth a global plan for eradicating poverty, caring for the environment, and ensuring that the fundamental rights of every individual are realized. Many—including Pope Francis—have rightly hailed the adoption of the SDGs as “an important sign of hope” for the vulnerable. At the same time, the SDGs could have unprecedented consequences for the protection of human life through the promotion of abortion at the highest levels of international politics and foreign aid.

Abortion Is Now Promoted at the Highest Level

All 193 Member States of the UN, and international institutions worldwide, will be expected to fall in line with the new agenda. Countries bear the responsibility of implementing the SDGs, and foreign aid will be allocated according to these new parameters. Target 5.6 of the SDGs seeks to ensure “universal access” to “reproductive rights”—a term commonly understood to include abortion, but not explicitly defined as such. Up to this point, resistance to “reproductive rights” has been strong enough to keep it out of the UN’s official development agenda. Although the UN has been in the business for a long time of promoting insidious population control policies, never before has it promoted “universal” access to abortion in such a high-level document.

The UN’s prior development agenda—the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which guided the world for the past fifteen years—made no mention whatsoever of “reproductive rights.” The MDGs represented a relatively neutral conception of universal betterment, with Goals such as “achieve universal primary education” (Goal 2) and “improve maternal health” (Goal 5). Markedly absent was any sort of controversial language of the kind we often see in UN documents today. A reference to “reproductive rights” in the MDGs was never even entertained—but fifteen years later, its inclusion in the SDGs was almost automatic.

This development is partly because the term “reproductive rights” is so vague. Over time, pro-life countries have lost the political will to stave off this most dangerous term, since it has not been entirely clear whether it includes abortion. This gives rise to a very peculiar conundrum: Pro-life countries are forced simultaneously to fight “reproductive rights” while insisting that these rights do not include abortion. Opposition to “reproductive rights” within individual countries ebbs and flows as a consequence of factors that include the position of their governments, the personal convictions of their diplomats in New York, and the amount of pressure the country is facing from the UN.

As a result, the trajectory of “reproductive rights” at the UN has been fraught with inconsistencies, but ultimately its twenty-year history reveals that the majority of UN Member States are, at the very least, uncomfortable with the term. UN pressure has compounded the effects of this ambiguity, compelling pro-life countries simply to accept “reproductive rights” rather than go against the mighty forces of the UN population-control machinery.

Pro-Life Countries Blocked from Changing Language

Abortion and population control have been integral to the makeup of the UN system for a long time, and are kept in check only insofar as Member States are empowered to block this agenda. The history of population control at the UN evinces a utilitarian conception of the human person. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) was launched in 1965 precisely for the purpose of reducing population in the developing world. In fact, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the largest provider of abortion in the world and international affiliate of the US-based Planned Parenthood—which has gained recent notoriety for illegally selling parts of aborted babies—was created simultaneously to act as the executive arm of UNFPA. In the 1990s, the phrase “sustainable development” was coined, officially cementing the link between development and demography and giving rise to numerous policies and programs—which persist to this day—that trumpeted the merits of population reduction in the name of sustainable development and dovetailed perfectly with the work of UNFPA. For many years, pro-life countries successfully blocked this pro-abortion, population-control rhetoric from entering major UN documents.

The creation of the SDGs represented a critical juncture for pro-life countries: Would they continue to resist “reproductive rights” or give in to pressure from abortion activists? Whenever the UN has the chance to do something new, the danger is that it will go beyond what previously has been accepted by countries and attempt to validate ideas that do not have the support of international law. This time around, “progressive” forces called for an agenda that would go further than the MDGs; an explicit reference to “reproductive rights” was the desired next frontier. Like the MDGs, the foundational document for the SDGs, which was negotiated in Rio de Janeiro only three years ago, made no mention of such “rights” or polices. Such omissions were not by mistake: Pro-life Member States fought tirelessly to ensure that these concepts were kept out of the document that would inform the content for the SDGs. How then, without any precedent, did “reproductive rights” make it into the final document of the SDGs, so that now all heads of state have adopted it?

Surprisingly, it was the leaders of the SDG negotiation process—Hungary and Ireland, both pro-life countries—who first introduced “reproductive rights” into the draft text. Pro-life countries tolerated this language because it contained an accompanying phrase indicating respect for national law on abortion—a phrase that customarily follows “reproductive rights” in all official UN documents. Once it was in the text, however, pro-abortion Member States spoke as though they could accept nothing less, and went as far as to request even more “reproductive rights” language. This all-or-nothing approach, coupled with the fact that such countries largely ignored the prior foundational Rio document, gave pro-life Member States little negotiating leverage. Moreover, pro-life Member States, believing that they had an entire year of negotiations ahead of them, did not realize that this initial inclusion of “reproductive rights” in Target 5.6 was there to stay.

In the final SDG deliberations, several countries succeeded in making last-minute changes to the Targets via backroom deals. Pro-life countries were powerless to act in the absence of express political instructions. Ultimately, it is uncertain whether sufficient political will existed to have “reproductive rights” removed, but no one country was willing to spearhead this fight. Moreover, as with every negotiation at the UN, representatives from UNFPA were actively working the negotiation room, standing at the ready to silence vulnerable countries that attempted to question the status quo. What was impossible fifteen years ago, or even three years ago in Rio, was now a fait accompli for the SDGs due to the zealous efforts of pro-abortion countries and the UN itself, exacerbated by a lack of clear direction from the pro-life side.

It is interesting to compare the evolution of “reproductive rights” to the issue of “sexual rights.” Unlike the current status of abortion at the UN, “sexual rights” elicits complete and unequivocal opposition from the majority of Member States, particularly from Africa and the Arab world. This opposition is so pronounced that it prevented any language on the role of “the family” for development to enter the SDGs. “Family” at the UN carries the full weight of the “sexual rights” debate, and has become so divisive as to preclude any mention of the word so as not to incite an all-out diplomatic fracas. Member States that protect the man-woman family only accept “family” in the singular, while pro-“LGBT” countries push for the plural.

Of course, “progressives” such as Brazil and the United States would have relished the opportunity to officially usher the “sexual rights” agenda into the international arena with a mention in the SDGs; however, they did not end up fighting for this goal. Unlike abortion, with regard to the “sexual rights” issue, these countries know that they cannot win in the face of unyielding opposition from the African and Arab Member States. Thus, in the final stages of the SDG negotiations, Kenya and Ireland removed the reference to family in its entirety—a testament to the current state of the fight over the family at the UN. The pressure on this issue is mounting in a fashion similar to the abortion fight, but, so far, the political will to block the “sexual rights” agenda has been unwavering.

“Reproductive Rights” are a Veiled Effort at Population Control

Abortion activists have claimed the SDGs as a win for their cause; however, they have not obtained the much-coveted status of “human right” for abortion, and obtaining such status is by no means imminent. Something does not gain the force of international law simply because some people think it should be law. As long as there is no treaty law on abortion and countries continue to object to this agenda, international law will favor the safeguarding of human life.

As a result of Target 5.6, countries could be forced to report on the extent to which they ensure access to abortion as a development criterion, but, in the end, pro-life Member States remain in a position to protect their sovereign authority on this crucial issue. The reality is that, although abortion has been elevated to an unprecedented level as a result of its inclusion in the SDGs, the official UN policy on abortion has not shifted. The UN system continues to advance abortion at every possible juncture, but its efforts remain restricted by country laws.

Although it is no longer fashionable to suggest that countries should be forcibly limiting their populations, the UN continues to respond to the challenges of development as it has long done: opting for fewer people, rather than less poverty. The SDGs process has made clear that although the UN has moved away from the overt promotion of population control, the inclusion of “reproductive rights” is a veiled homage to this age-old agenda.

The power of the UN is immense, and countries must fortify themselves if they are to withstand the surge of pressure that will spring forth from the SDGs, especially as the “indicators” and other mechanisms surrounding the implementation of the Agenda are worked out in the coming months. It is imperative now more than ever that countries stand by their sovereign laws that protect life and family and focus on the much-needed positive aspects of the SDGs—which, fortunately, constitute the majority of the agenda.

Although the inclusion of “reproductive rights” is a serious setback, it does not tarnish the entire agenda. The tremendous importance of the SDGs for poverty eradication cannot be ignored. The UN must be held accountable to its legitimate development objectives, which are urgent for so much of the world.

Elyssa Koren is UN Counsel for ADF International, working with UN delegates to refine outcome documents to promote human dignity.

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