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By Patrick Goodenough, CNSNews, March 14, 2019
(CNSNews.com) – Pushing back against accusations that women’s rights have been excised from annual reports on human rights, a senior State Department official said Wednesday the term “reproductive rights” has been dropped because some advocates interpret the term as incorporating a “right to abortion” – even though U.S. administrations of both parties have not done so.
Briefing reporters, Michael Kozak pointed back to the origins of the language – the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 and the Beijing world conference on women the following year.
He quoted then-Vice President Al Gore, speaking at the National Press Club shortly before leading the U.S. delegation to Cairo, as making clear that the U.S. “does not seek … to establish any international right to abortion.”
Kozak, who is acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, noted that the final Cairo document stated that, “Any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national or local level, according to national legislative process. In circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be safe.”
“So the upshot here is the United States did not seek and did not obtain international consensus that there is a human right to abortion,” he said.
Yet despite that history, Kozak said, some still assert that “reproductive rights” covers abortion, and that was why the Trump State Department has decided to remove the term from the annual reports.
“The reason we stopped using the term in the reports was that some advocates had begun to claim that – notwithstanding the history I’ve just given you – that the term ‘reproductive rights’ did include the right to abortion.”
“And so rather than using a term that now has two completely divergent meanings to it, we decided to go back and use the U.S. statutory standard that we report on coercive population practices such as forced and coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization.”
The U.N. International Conference on Population and Development meeting was held in Cairo in 1994. (UN Photo)
Until 2011, the text of the annual report did not refer to “reproductive rights.” From that year onwards, the term was used as a subheading in each country’s section on women. (Other subheadings covered things like “Rape and domestic violence” and “sexual harassment.”)
“When the term [reproductive rights] was used in the [State Department] human rights report context, it was not defined as including any right to abortion,” Kozak said.
“And that was the position of the United States government under successive administrations, including the previous administration – that there was no internationally recognized right to abortion.”
In the run-up to Wednesday’s report release, Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation that would compel the State Department to include “a section on reproductive rights” in its annual human rights reports.
The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on Thursday, has 30 Democratic co-sponsors and the House version, introduced by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) has 126, also all Democrats.
The lawmakers charged that the Trump administration had in 2017 “eliminated this critical component of its report without warning or justification.”
“The White House is attacking women by erasing them,” said Clark. “Today, we are taking action. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, the U.S. government must serve as a watchdog and advocate for women’s fundamental reproductive rights.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threw her support behind the initiative, tweeting that it “would correct the Trump administration’s dangerous decision to remove reporting on reproductive rights from the State Department’s annual reports on human rights practices around the world.”
Human Rights Watch also weighed in, saying that “the Trump administration has cut most mentions of key human rights abuses that disproportionately impact women and girls around the world from the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights reports.”
‘Reproductive rights’ vs. ‘Coercion in Population Control’
Comparing the 2018 report and the 2011 one – the first in which the “Reproductive Rights” subheading appeared – the relevant sections relating to one major country, China, are not dissimilar.
In the 2018 report’s China section, a 975-word subsection headed “Coercion in population control” outlined the coercive birth-limitation policies of the communist authorities, while the 2011 report’s China section includes a 1,208-word subsection headed “Reproductive rights,” covering essentially the same ground.
The difference in approach is more evident when comparing the India sections of the 2011 and 2018 reports.
Although both are almost exactly equal in length (340 words vs. 341 words), the 2018 subsection, entitled “Coercion in Population Control” deals with cases of coerced or involuntary sterilizations, and pressure or incentives to limit Indian family sizes.
By contrast, the Obama State Department’s 2011 report subsection, headed “Reproductive Rights,” covers issues like maternal mortality rates and HIV/Aids infection rates among Indian women.
In the briefing, Kozak said matters like maternal mortality rates used to appear in the annual reports, but those data were available elsewhere, such as USAID’s Demographic and Health Surveys Program, and the World Health Organization.
So rather than summarize those data sets in the human rights reports, he said, the department has included, in an annex, links to those sites, “so people can look it up on their own.”
Similarly, the State Department no longer includes in the human rights reports summaries of information that can found in its other reports, such as the international religious freedom report and trafficking in persons report.
“Now, thanks to the wonders of Vice President Gore’s Internet, we are able to just put hyperlinks in so people can go find those things on their own,” he said.