As they stand, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do, contrary to Monsignor Sorondo’s assertion noted in an article published Friday, include abortion. The term “reproductive rights” has come to include abortion. Therefore, the use of “reproductive rights” in SDG 5.6 means that the SDGs list as a goal abortion as a right. This is troubling indeed, and not to be brushed aside.
As in any profession or industry, the terminology used in diplomatic circles has a learning curve. Some look at terms and see only their plain meaning. In its plain meaning, reproductive rights can be reasonably understood as a right to reproduce (for example, against forced sterilizations), a right to refuse sexual relations (i.e. against rape or sexual coercion), and a right to receive medical care related to reproduction without being restricted due to taboos, sexism, etc.
But these terms do not exist in a vacuum. When the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) agreed to a definition of reproductive rights, it included a limitation: that abortion was a matter for national law. However, since that time, dedicated abortion advocates have asserted abortion as a reproductive right so thoroughly at the international level that the term is no longer understood to include that limitation. Ask delegates and U.N. staff whether “reproductive rights” includes abortions, and they will say that it does. Therefore, Monsignor is indeed mistaken that the SDGs do not present a problem for those committed to defending human dignity and opposing violations of it like abortion.
However, while we must be aware of false angels, we must not create false devils. One of the most commonly used terms at the United Nations is “SRHR,” for “sexual and reproductive health and rights,” a shortening of “sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.” By intertwining rights with health, abortion advocates have tried to make it harder to separate the two in order for “rights” to be swept in with health. They benefit from the association with a term, “health,” that everyone agrees with.
But note what abortion advocates have not done: They have not removed “rights” from the phrase. And they and Member States that support abortion are always advocating for the inclusion of sexual and reproductive rights. They have taken out an extra “reproductive” to try to make rights inseparable from health, but they are not satisfied with sexual and reproductive health. In other words, they know that “reproductive health” will not help them promote abortion.
The ICPD called for an international right to reproductive health, but it did not create one. In defining “reproductive health,” the countries did not include abortion as a component. Assertions, whether from treaty-monitoring bodies, or abortion-promoting organizations, that abortion is a part of health do not reflect the law, nor that they are not the authors of international law. For more information on the international law foundation for these terms, see the World Youth Alliance Reproductive Health White Paper. See also the San Jose Articles, Footnote 7.
The term “reproductive health” is an important tool precisely because it is does not include abortion. When we reject it as tainted by association, we restrict our ability to be effective at the United Nations. Asking delegates to oppose references to health puts them in an untenable position. Without a term both sides can work with, there is no way to remove the truly problematic terms. And on a political level, how can we ask those courageously advocating for human dignity and human life to oppose reproductive health, when we know scientifically that it is an important component of health as a whole? To ask them to do so is asking them to squander the chances they do have to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Delegates to the United Nations who courageously oppose the attempts to impose abortion on their countries need support. That support should be grounded in sound legal analysis and good strategy. If we want to win the war, we should not waste our ammunition fighting ghost armies. We must oppose every inclusion of language promoting abortion. But we must not oppose language that does not obligate states to provide abortion. This is not compromising with evil, realpolitik, or sacrificing our ultimate goal for false gains. This is utilizing our best chance at resisting the imposition of abortion at the international level.
By targeting the exact problem, we reinforce the international law in our favor and highlight the lack of legal foundation for abortion as a human right. We give delegates an end they can negotiate for that the other side can also live with, avoiding stalemates or pressure on other goals, such as financing for development. And we preserve the rights of countries to determine their own policies about abortion, so that everyone can work together to build a culture where the dignity of every human being is respected from conception.
Nadja Wolfe is an advocacy fellow at the World Youth Alliance.