The pro-life movement cannot limit itself to focusing on the United States. Just as the abolitionists had their sights on dismantling a global slave trade, so too the pro-life movement must target the global abortion conglomerate of governments, philanthropists, international bureaucrats, academics, and faux “civil society” organizations they use as proxies. The goal must be to deprive it of domestic and international political and financial support, and eventually dismantle it.
So far, President Trump has followed the lead of the pro-life advocates behind the 1973 Helms Amendment and the 1984 Mexico City Policy. He reinstituted and expanded the Mexico City Policy. He has defunded the United Nations Population Fund. He has reproached a UN treaty body for seeking to manufacture an international right to abortion. He has insisted on important caveats in international agreements that include “sexual and reproductive health” to rule out international abortion rights and made reservations to UN agreements to that effect. But this should be just the beginning.
I want to suggest here two further essential steps for the pro-life movement internationally—steps in which the Trump administration can play a catalytic role.
A Multilateral Mexico City Policy
First, the Mexico City Policy must become a multilateral initiative, as I already outlined in Public Discourse last year. The end-game here is to make abortion and multilateral aid incompatible in the twenty-first century. And, by launching a pro-life multilateral campaign, President Trump would be delivering on his stated intent in the State of the Union address on January 30 to only give U.S. foreign assistance to countries and organizations that are friends of the United States and share our values.
This has become urgent in the wake of the $560-million “She Decides” European campaign to bail out the global abortion industry following the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy. So far, the US State Department has done nothing to contest this initiative, even though the campaign has been vocally anti-American.
Many countries would support U.S. efforts to fight the abortion industry, especially if the U.S. created incentives for doing so. This could be provided in the shape of a multilateral agreement creating a long-term partnership to provide healthcare to mothers and children without promoting or performing abortion in any form. Both donor and developing states would be invited to join the partnership, alongside global health organizations such as World Vision, Caritas and Catholic Relief Services, as well as mainstream pro-life organizations. An annual summit would gather the partners to renew their commitment, monitor results, and welcome new partners.
Favorable political conditions to make this happen exist in Poland, Hungary, and Malta, and dozens of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia whose laws are highly protective of children in the womb. The Holy See, who has been the undisputed champion of the unborn at UN headquarters for decades, and at times their only friend, should also be a powerful partner in this initiative.
Changing the International Normative Paradigm
Secondly, the pro-life movement must push the United States and other nations to become more aggressive in contesting “sexual and reproductive health” policies that support the global abortion industry. The end-game is to eliminate abortion from UN policy altogether.
International human rights law does not explicitly prohibit abortion. At the same time, abortion cannot be considered an international right, as the San Jose Articles helpfully explain. On the contrary, children in the womb are presumptively protected by key human rights instruments. Nevertheless, unborn children have been under attack in international arenas for over three decades. Abortion groups have successfully promoted access to so-called “safe abortion” in UN agreements. The international debate over abortion has calcified in this environment, stuck in an unfavorable normative paradigm established at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, which allowed abortion into UN policy, albeit with caveats.
That agreement expressly and implicitly includes abortion in multiple definitions of “sexual and reproductive health” and related phrases. The term was coined by abortion and population control groups to legitimize abortion alongside maternal health care, family planning, and HIV treatment and prevention. It obscures the heinousness of abortion and makes it sound like just another aspect of healthcare. My C-Fam colleague Susan Yoshihara, PhD, described the genesis of this terminology in international policy in the article “Lost in Translation.” In recent years, this terminology has also become a conduit for extreme LGBT agendas, gender ideology, and controversial sexuality education.
The Cairo agreement was adopted with this language over the objections of the Holy See and many UN member states. However, the Holy See, supported by a broad coalition of other countries, was able to obtain important concessions in the final agreement to limit the threat to the unborn. These include statements that (1) abortion is not an international right, that (2) it cannot be promoted as a form of family planning, that (3) governments must help women avoid abortion, and that (4) where abortion is legal, it should be “safe”—implying not only that abortion is inherently dangerous, but that it is presumptively against the law.
At the time, the momentum for an international right to abortion seemed unstoppable, and no one had any illusions about what the term “sexual and reproductive health” meant. These caveats were rightly seen as a great and improbable victory, as can be gleaned from George Weigel’s report in First Things, “What Really Happened At Cairo.”
Since the Cairo agreement, abortion groups and their international backers have sought to undermine, ignore, and move beyond the ICPD caveats. So long as a UN consensus continues to include the ICPD caveats, it is the most powerful evidence that UN member states do not want abortion to be an international right. This is an important reason why the Cairo agreement and its caveats were included in the 2030 Agenda adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.
What Really Went Wrong at Cairo
While the ICPD framework excludes an international right to abortion, at a political and programmatic level it legitimizes abortion and translates into political and financial support for abortion groups. The caveats have simply not proven effective.
Sexual and reproductive health is the single largest item on the global health agenda, with roughly 12 billion dollars spent on it annually, according to OECD data. UN agencies, officials, and abortion groups have skillfully turned the caveats on their head to promote “safe abortion” not just in UN policy, but in UN human rights mechanisms. Susan Yoshihara described the broader contours of this scheme in her article “Rights by Stealth.”
While it may seem esoteric, the political compromise on abortion reached at Cairo is not so dissimilar from the compromise on slavery that was reached in the US Constitution. It tries to hold together two diametrically opposed positions. Just as the slave trade clause in the US Constitution cast slavery in a negative light, so too the ICPD caveats cast abortion in a negative light. But just as the fugitive slave clause in the US Constitution legitimized slavery, so too the ICPD agreement legitimized abortion. This is why the pro-life movement cannot be content so long as the current ICPD compromise on abortion remains in place. There is no political or bureaucratic compromise pro-lifers can ever feel comfortable with so long as children are killed in the womb.
The Holy See’s efforts to undermine the ICPD compromise for over twenty years are the template that pro-lifers should follow. Unlike States that hid their conscience behind their sovereign territorial limits and the non-binding character of UN agreements, the Holy See had to fulfill its moral duty to show solicitude for unborn children wherever they may be and at all times, and has never been content with the status quo. Consequently, it has steadfastly contested the inclusion of “sexual and reproductive health” as well as related terms like “reproductive rights” in UN agreements.
Dozens of nations have followed the lead of the Holy See, including the United States under the Bush administration. Most recently, the entirety of both the African Group and the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as several countries individually, made reservations on these terms when the General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015.
But the pro-life movement needs to ratchet up pressure on UN delegations to contest the inclusion of sexual and reproductive health in UN policy altogether until they are redefined to exclude abortion. This is not a quibble about the current definitions of UN policy, as some have suggested. It is about taking abortion out of UN policy altogether. Sadly, even as international policy and institutions threaten the unborn in ways previously thought unimaginable, some pro-life groups don’t think this is a battle worth fighting.
We Cannot Surrender International Norms to the Abortion Industry
While it is understandable that pro-life groups are demoralized after the relentless pounding we received under the Obama administration, getting abortion out of UN policy is not an unattainable goal, as some have argued. On the contrary, it must be the primary goal of the pro-life cause internationally. Roughly one third of UN member states are highly protective of children in the womb. These are the same nations that have expressed reservations about sexual and reproductive health generally or abortion more specifically. Last week, the U.S. State Department published its first review of the Mexico City Policy and found that it was overwhelmingly accepted by USAID partners. Only four abortion groups refused to accept the conditions of the policy. Just this should be indication enough that it is possible to exclude abortion from UN policy.
Because of the power and influence that the United States wields internationally, the United States alone can supply the political will and impetus to end abortion. The ICPD agreement itself could never have included abortion in UN policy without pressure from the Clinton administration. The Trump administration has already made some important steps to bring back the UN debate over abortion back to pre-Obama era fault lines, by asking to qualify the term “sexual and reproductive health” by reference to the ICPD agreement in at least some recent international agreements. This is essential to prevent the development of an international right to abortion, and must remain the fallback position for the US delegation. But more must be done to reclaim international norms.
The Trump administration should now escalate the normative struggle at the United Nations and in other international fora to lay the foundations for taking out abortion from UN policy altogether. The best way for this to happen is to categorically oppose the inclusion of the term “sexual and reproductive health” in UN policy unless it is defined to expressly exclude abortion. So long as this does not happen, the US administration should insist on referring to the major components of sexual and reproductive health policy that do not involve the killing of an innocent child instead, chiefly, maternal health, family planning, and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.
Continuing to include the term “sexual and reproductive health” in UN policy and merely making reservations is simply not going to hurt the abortion industry enough. Reservations from the Holy See make a fine moral point and help Holy See diplomats avoid scandal. Reservations from the US delegations to the United Nations look great in the pro-life press, as under the Bush administration and the Trump administration currently. They also make the case against abortion as an international right. But programmatically they are useless. When they become necessary, it is because UN policy already includes abortion. The damage is done, and the money and political will for children to be killed in the womb has already been spent.
In this sense, falling back on reservations has actually harmed the pro-life cause. Reservations have acted as a moral palliative that has allowed the cancer of sexual and reproductive health to metastasize in UN policy. They are especially convenient for UN delegations that do not have the moral fortitude or political backing to make a principled stand for the human rights of the unborn. They allow delegations that should otherwise be opposed to abortion in UN policy because of their country’s laws to sign on to agreements that give political and financial support to abortion groups.
An Appeal to President Trump
We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the history of the pro-life movement internationally. And it requires President Trump to once again challenge the status quo. His willingness to defy the seemingly unassailable orthodoxies of government bureaucracies is a cause for hope.
While the abortion industry has not been able to create a right to abortion, it has succeeded in securing political and financial support through UN sexual and reproductive health policy and the UN system. If this continues, the abortion industry will expand its political influence, with deadly consequences for children in the womb.
We have reached a tipping point. International policy on abortion must change. And it can change in one of two ways. Either abortion will be taken out of UN policy altogether, or it will be enshrined as an international right.
It is not enough to defend life through reservations and symbolic political gestures. Nor is it enough to go back to the status quo before Obama took over the White House. President Trump must be helped to make his time in office count. The pro-life movement must insist on results and victories until abortion becomes history.
Stefano Gennarini is the Director of Legal Studies at the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam) in New York. He tweets as @prolifeadvocate. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of C-Fam.