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US asks for abortion references to be removed from UN pandemic response plan

Posted May 19, 2020 4:50 p.m. EDT

— The Trump administration is urging the United Nations secretary general to remove any references to reproductive health, including abortions, from the UN's humanitarian response plan to the coronavirus pandemic to "avoid creating controversy."

"The United States stands with nations that have pledged to protect the unborn," acting Administrator of USAID John Barsa wrote in a letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres on Monday. "To achieve global unity toward this goal, it is essential that the UN's response to the pandemic avoid creating controversy. Therefore, I ask that you remove references to 'sexual and reproductive health,' and its derivatives from the Global HRP, and drop the provision of abortion as an essential component of the UN's priorities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Though the US blocked a UN Security Council resolution that called for a global ceasefire aimed at collectively addressing the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the globe earlier this month, Barsa said the references risked undermining a united response to the crisis.

"Now is not the time to add unnecessary discord to the Covid-19 response," Barsa wrote.

The UN "should not use this crisis as an opportunity to advance access to abortion as an 'essential service,' " Barsa said. He also said it is "most egregious" that the UN's Global Humanitarian Response plan "calls for the widespread distribution of abortion-inducing drugs and abortion supplies, and for the promotion of abortion in local country settings."

Barsa says the US has given $45.3 million to UN agencies to combat the coronavirus pandemic though the Trump administration has frozen funding for the World Health Organization, which is a UN health agency.

Barsa's letter is receiving criticism from human rights groups.

"USAID should be ashamed for its outlandish attempt to use coronavirus as a means of dismantling a long-standing sexual and reproductive health rights framework from the UN's pandemic response," said Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). "When the United States steps away from an internationally agreed upon SRHR framework, it steps away from protecting women's right to life."

"We're watching you and we will hold you accountable every step of the way throughout this response," Sippel said.

UN health documents often refer to sexual and reproductive health and say it is central to the international agency's broader goal of accelerating development, particularly efforts to improve mother and child mortality and health care. Global health experts say now is not the time to launch an attack on sexual and reproductive services.

"The health needs of women and girls do not stop because we are in the middle of an emergency. In fact, they increase," Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of CARE USA, wrote on Twitter.

The letter marks the latest effort by the Trump administration to try and impose their policy of not spending US taxpayer dollars to fund abortions on the United Nations.

The "Mexico City Policy" -- which has been implemented on and off since 1985 -- conditions US funding for global family planning on a commitment from NGOs that they won't promote or perform abortions using funds from any source.

The Trump administration has expanded the rule to apply not just to funding for family planning, but all global health assistance, including funding for HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, malaria, nutrition and other programs.

Last year the administration pushed the UN to drop mentions of reproductive health from official documents -- arguing that such references could promote the use of abortions.

"We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in UN documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensus and which can be misinterpreted by UN agencies," US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at the United Nations general assembly.

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