The road to the international agreements forged in Cairo and Beijing was long and fraught with cultural potholes, but nothing like the challenges that our own government placed in the path of women’s reproductive self-determination. Now, there’s been a 180 degree turn back to the future, and the world is relieved. But other countries have moved forward, so what’s the next step for the U.S.?
Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work and columnist for Slate’s new XX among many other accomplishments, and I wrote this commentary. After we were rejected by the New York Times and the Washington Post (what else is new?), we decided it was too important an issue not to see the light of day. So we’re publishing it on RHREalityCheck, Huffington Post, and here on good ol’ Heartfeldt.
At the very moment the Obama administration’s decision to seek a U.S. seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council grabbed headlines, the United States quietly took the reins on the most important human rights issue for humanity’s future: sexual and reproductive rights. On March 31, State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Margaret Pollack, told delegates to the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, meeting in New York, that America was back.
Marking a 180 degree turnaround from Bush administration policies that fought international efforts to enable people to control their own reproductive fate, the U.S. will once again defend the “human rights and fundamental freedoms of women” and support “universal access to sexual and reproductive health.” Abstinence-only sex education, the bête noir of health providers attempting to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, was Kung-Fu kicked aside. Human rights apply to all regardless of sexual orientation. The U.S. commits to ratify CEDAW, the women’s rights treaty already signed by 185 nations, and even endorses “equal partnerships and sharing of responsibilities in all areas of family life, including in sexual and reproductive life.”
The global sigh of relief was palpable. For with all its money and diplomatic resources, the U.S. is the 10,000 gorilla in international reproductive policy. Now the question is, while this is certainly change we can believe in, is it all the change we need?
U.S. foreign policy since the 1970’s has included funding for international family planning programs. We’ve been the largest contributor to these preventive reproductive health services (by U.S. law, abortions aren’t funded) globally. The U.S. led the march to the groundbreaking 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development agreement that women’s rights and health, including reproductive rights and health, are central to development and poverty-reduction, environmental sustainability, and the strength and security of democracy itself.
Since the Reagan administration, though, cultural and religious conservatives have fought U.N. commitment to women’s reproductive rights. Reagan issued the first global gag rule denying U.S. funding to organizations that perform or even discuss abortion.
President Bill Clinton rescinded the gag rule; George W. Bush’s first official act was to reinstate it. In the last eight years, the United States government, in alignment with fundamentalist Islamic nations as well as Christian fundamentalists and Catholics, used U.N. meetings aggressively to push abstinence education and faith-based institutions as the source of guidance on sexuality and reproductive matters. And U.S. staff on the ground enforced the strictures on the ground with increasing zeal.
Women’s right to safe abortions were the sharp point of this wedge issue, but preventive family planning, comprehensive sex education, and HIV/AIDS prevention programs were opposed equally. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that—ironically–each year Bush denied them the $34 million funding Congress authorized, it led to 2 million preventable unintended pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and 77,000 deaths of both mother and child.
European countries took up some slack; UNFPA’s largest supporter is now tiny Netherlands for example. And many of the nations in the developing world have contributed more than their fair share commitment stated in the Cairo agreement. But U.S. legitimacy suffered. After euphoria in Cairo, followed by the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” reproductive rights advocates struggled to hold land they had gained while the largest richest country in the world aided the sexual conservatives.
Now all that has changed again. Not only did Obama rescind the global gag rule, UNFPA’s funding was reinstated and increased to $50 million. USAID’s 2009 budget for international family planning assistance increased to $545 million from $457 million in 2008. All great news. The 10,000 pound gorilla has pivoted back to the future.
But much of the world has advanced since Cairo to a more ambitious agenda for women’s full social and economic equality. And what does that mean for the U.S. vision for its own leadership role for women, population, and development globally?
Domestically, five former directors of USAID’s Population and Reproductive Health Program are calling for immediate doubling of U.S. funding for family planning overseas, to $1.2 billion and increasing to $1.5 billion over the next few years, if global anti-poverty and development goals are to be achieved amid the worldwide economic downturn.
And it is essential that the U.S. address the legitimate place of safe and legal abortion within women’s reproductive health and human rights; after all, in meanwhile, groups opposed to women’s rights and abortion are redoubling their efforts to push back. That is why the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations are working to establish legal theories regarding why reproductive rights are indeed human rights , and we can see in countries such as Mexico how these perspectives are advancing women’s access to safe, legal abortion based on human rights rather than the right to privacy as in the U.S.
Michelle Goldberg argued persuasively in her recent book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World,” that the absence of women’s reproductive rights contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, family instability, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability. Other matters may make more news, but nothing will make more difference. Whatever the next steps in this continuing struggle, U.S. policy will lead the way.