The Yanks Are Coming — Back

Gloria Feldt and Linda Hirshman

At the moment the Obama administration's decision to seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council grabbed headlines, the U.S. quietly took the reins on the most important human rights issue for humanity's future: sexual and reproductive rights.

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 ten thousand pound 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
1970s 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.

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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 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 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.  

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