Clinton Disappointed That Rio Text Includes Family Planning but Omits ‘Reproductive Rights’

Patrick Goodenough | June 26, 2012 | 4:31am EDT
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Friday, June 22, 2012. (AP Photo)

( – “Reproductive rights” advocates, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are unhappy that the term did not make it into the final document coming out of last week’s United Nations sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro. The text did call for “universal access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable modern methods of family planning.”

Although often unstated for political reasons, for many proponents, “reproductive rights” includes the right to abortion.

Clinton was among those who expressed disappointment that the term had not explicitly appeared in the outcome document of the conference known as Rio+20.

“While I am very pleased that this year’s outcome document endorses sexual and reproductive health and universal access to family planning, to reach our goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights,” she said in Rio on Friday, drawing applause.

“Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children. And the United States will continue – the United States will continue to work to ensure that those rights are respected in international agreements.”

The term “reproductive rights” appeared in the landmark document arising from the 1994 International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo, and was reaffirmed in a “platform for action” agreed upon at a major women’s conference in Beijing in 1995, endorsed at the time by the Clinton administration.

The new Rio+20 document does include a reference to both the 1994 and 1995 texts, calling for “full and effective implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Program of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.”

Although there are references to sexual and reproductive health and universal access to family planning in three places (paragraphs 145, 146 and 241), the exclusion of the actual term “reproductive rights” continues to draw protests.

“[T]he Reproductive Rights community,” International Planned Parenthood Federation Director-General Tewodros Melesse wrote in a response published Monday, was “united in its disappointment and outright anger that once again reproductive rights had been sidelined and alluded to in only the most cursory fashion in the outcome document.”

“No useful debate on sustainable development can afford to ignore reproductive rights,” he argued. “A woman’s right to protect herself from unwanted pregnancy – should she so wish – has immense health, social, educational and economic impacts, personally and globally.”

International Planned Parenthood Federation director-general Tewodros Melesse. (Photo: IPPF)

Melesse, an Ethiopian who assumed the IPPF helm last September, did not explain how the document’s call for “universal access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable modern methods of family planning” fell short of the goal of upholding a “woman’s right to protect herself from unwanted pregnancy.”

He blamed the Vatican, Malta and Egypt for opposing inclusion of the “reproductive rights” term in the document.

Also unhappy were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Center for International Environment Law.

“The Holy See led the charge against sexual and reproductive rights, with support of the G77, an organization of developing countries,” the three organizations said in a joint statement. “The participating countries emphasized the need for universal access to reproductive health, including family planning and sexual health and the integration of reproductive health in national strategies and programs in the outcome document. But express reproductive rights language was deleted.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and a member of the so-called Elders, said that “omission of reproductive rights” from the text was “regrettable” and “a step backwards from previous agreements.”

“The lack of recognition of reproductive rights as essential to sustainable development was especially disappointing,” said Anita Nayar of a group called Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era. “Reproductive rights are universally recognized as human rights,” she added.

‘Reproductive health includes access to legal, safe abortion’

Clinton’s remarks in Rio stand in contrast to the approach taken by the Bush administration in response to earlier efforts to have “reproductive rights” language included in international documents.

In late 2002, for example, the U.S. stood firm in its opposition to the inclusion of phrases like “reproductive health services” and “reproductive rights” in a plan of action being drafted at a U.N. Asia-Pacific population conference in Thailand.

The U.S. delegation alone voted against a section in the text dealing with reproductive health and rights, after its proposal that a footnote be inserted saying explicitly that the phrases in question do not promote abortion was rejected.

The U.N. Population Fund’s executive director at the time, Thoraya Obaid, insisted that the term “reproductive health services” was not “code for the promotion or support for abortion services.”

But U.S. delegate Arthur Dewey told the gathering, “While services include many activities, at least three delegations have stated on the floor of this conference that their interpretation of the term services as including abortion, and no country has taken the floor to contradict their interpretations.”

Some non-governmental organizations attending the meeting slammed the U.S. for its stance, saying it was holding up progress in important areas of fighting poverty. Steven Sinding, the then IPPF director-general, urged delegates to resist efforts to “turn back the clock on sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

At a G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Canada in 2010, Secretary of State Clinton made waves when in reply to a press conference question she linked abortion explicitly with “reproductive health.”

“I’ve worked in this area for many years,” she said. “And if we’re talking about maternal health, you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.”

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