“Reproductive health” and “family planning” are not poisonous terms. As the World Youth Alliance’s white paper on reproductive health demonstrates, international law is clear. No international human rights treaty includes abortion as a component of reproductive health. The first and primary international consensus document to define reproductive health, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), does not include abortion in the definition. As a document of political will, rather than a legally binding treaty, it reflects the commitments of States to addressing population opportunities and challenges.
Although the ICPD Programme of Action includes abortion as a component of reproductive health care (Paragraph 7.6) and reproductive health services (Paragraph 13.14(b)), in each of these instances, abortion is only included as specified in Paragraph 8.25. That paragraph limits the inclusion of abortion only where it is legal, and thus does not require abortion where it is not already legal. It emphasizes that each State’s abortion laws are its own prerogative, not the international community’s. It also states that abortion should not be promoted as a means of family planning, a point on which every United Nations Member State agrees. Further references to abortion throughout the Programme of Action cast it as undesirable.
It is important to make distinctions in language and terminology when attempting to understand or participate in UN negotiations. “Reproductive health,” the topic of the World Youth Alliance white paper, is different from the terms “reproductive health care,” “reproductive health services,” and “reproductive rights.” These terms should be understood separately, as they have different meanings. Reproductive health should not be rejected altogether because of conflation with the other terms.
During the negotiations for the 45th Session of the Commission on Population and Development, held this April, at least 24 consistently pro-life Member States clearly articulated that they accept the term “reproductive health services,” as long as it is accompanied by a specific reference to the ICPD Programme of Action. At no point in the negotiations did any of these pro-life Member States object to the terms “reproductive health” and “family planning.”
The failure to produce an outcome document at the 56th Commission on the Status of Women in March was due to opposition to sexual and reproductive rights language, in addition to ambiguous ideas such as comprehensive sexuality education. The repeated inclusion of contraception—in the place of family planning—also contributed to the lack of consensus. The delegates did not battle over the concept of reproductive health, as it is an accepted term.
The consequences of an improper understanding of reproductive health are serious. Treaty-monitoring bodies (TMBs), which monitor the implementation of treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), have pressured countries to legalize abortion or loosen abortion restrictions under the reproductive health framework. The answer to this pressure is to educate States Parties to treaties that abortion is not a component of any treaty and to empower them to reject the non-binding recommendations of TMBs, not to run away from the concept of reproductive health. NGOs that relentlessly assert abortion as part of reproductive health—powerhouses such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Ipas among them—do not have lawmaking capacities.
The response to these NGOs is to assert the true definition, which has the support of law. Even better, programs and policies that emphasize real reproductive health—empowerment of women through knowledge-based education about their bodies—need to be available to countries so that they do not reluctantly accept the slim pickings that IPPF has on offer. And in response to pressure from the EU, the United States, Scandinavian countries, and other proponents of the false understanding of reproductive health, it is clear that small and developing countries are able to defend their position on reproductive health. This was made evident at this March’s Commission on the Status of the Women, when they refused to succumb to dirty political tactics and prevented those governments from asserting their false understanding of reproductive health.
The term “reproductive health” is here to stay in the global health policy arena. By using the term, States can influence what happens at the United Nations. States cannot afford to be irrelevant in negotiations.
Meghan Grizzle is Research and Policy Specialist at the World Youth Alliance. She graduated from Harvard College in 2007 with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Linguistics and from Harvard Law School in 2011.
Austin Ruse and Stefano Gennarini J.D., A Strong Note of Caution on Reproductive Health and Family Planning
Meghan Grizzle, World Youth Alliance White Paper on Reproductive Health
Meghan Grizzle, World Youth Alliance White Paper on Family Planning
Meghan Grizzle, True Reproductive Health
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