UN Agencies Duck Taking Stand on Safe Abortion
Broadly welcomed as a "milestone" for women's rights, UN Women's strategic plan released in early July sets out an ambitious agenda to improve the rights and opportunities of women around the world. It outlines key goals to increase women's leadership and economic empowerment, end violence against women and promote global norms on gender equality. One issue, however, is neatly ignored: safe abortion.
The omission puts it in league with other U.N. agencies that are shying away from the politically volatile topic, despite mounting evidence that restricted abortion access contributes to maternal deaths and constitutes a violation of a woman's human rights. Unsafe abortion is one of the three leading causes of maternal mortality, killing an estimated 68,000 women each year, according to UN Women. Yet Millennium Development Goal No. 5 – which aims to halve these fatalities by 2015 – makes no mention of unsafe abortions. None of the U.N. agencies dealing with women's rights and maternal health – the U.N. Population Fund, the World Health Organization and now UN Women – has condemned restrictive abortion laws even though all have acknowledged their harm.
UN Women's flagship report "Progress of the World's Women," released last month, recognized that "the criminalization of abortion results in severe restrictions to women's rights." Although this language represents a landmark shift from previous reports, it has not translated into policy. The agency maintains its support for the 1994 Cairo agreement, which accords U.N. member states the sovereign right to determine abortion laws.
"[Michelle] Bachelet is building her political capital within the U.N. and worldwide," says Carmen Barroso, regional director at International Planned Parenthood Federation. "She is also fundraising for an entity that is severely under resourced. In light of this, she will not engage on controversial issues such as abortion."