Trump Admin’s ‘Pro-Women’ Human Rights Panel Stacked With Anti-Abortion Figures

By (Emily Shugerman)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

A new Trump administration commission on human rights will be filled with anti-abortion advocates, including a former ambassador to the Holy See who declared that abortion is “related to the coarsening of the social fabric.” 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights last week in a Wall St. Journal op-ed, in which he claimed the discussion around human rights had become diluted. The new group, he wrote, would “ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”

The announcement drew concern from human rights groups like Amnesty International, who worried the commission would seek to limit the scope of human rights domestically and abroad. And while the State Department claims the group will not discuss abortion, the conservative makeup of the commission has reproductive rights advocates on edge.  

“Appointing these ideologues to a commission purporting to safeguard human rights will have the opposite effect and will endanger the health and well-being of countless women,” Michelle Kuppersmith, director of reproductive rights group Equity Forward, said in a statement.

“This is a clear extension of the Trump administration’s anti-women, anti-reproductive health campaign, and a blatant attempt to restrict the rights of vulnerable populations around the globe.”

The chair of the 12-person commission, Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon, is a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See who led the Vatican’s delegation to the United Nations Conference on Women in 1995. At the time, she told The New York Times she “could not agree more” with Pope John Paul II, who was known for his traditional Catholic stances on abortion and contraception. She later went on to receive Notre Dame’s Evangelium Vitae Medal for “Heroes Of The Pro-Life Movement.”

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‘The whole question about abortion is related to the coarsening of the social fabric,” Glendon told the Times in 1995. “It promotes a certain callousness which has frightening implications for the future.”  

Also serving on the commission is F. Cartwright Weiland, a Texas-based attorney who studied under Glendon at Harvard Law. Weiland helped write Supreme Court amicus briefs supporting Texas’s restrictions on abortion providers and served on the Council For Life’s “Role of Rights” education panel.

Commission member Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, the president of Zaytuna College, published an article last year calling abortion “an assault on a sanctified life,” while fellow member Christopher Olaf Tollefsen co-authored the book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, which argues against stem-cell research and promotes the idea that life begins at conception.

“There is nothing potential about the life of the fetus, the embryo, or the zygote: it is actually alive,” he wrote in a 2010 journal article. “Nor is there anything potential about the humanity of that life: it is an actual human life.”

Commission member Jacqueline Rivers, a sociology lecturer at Harvard, spoke on a 2017 Harvard Law Students For Life Panel Entitled “Why We Are ProLife: Dignity, Equality, Human Rights,” where she discussed how her pro-life views are rooted in her Christian faith. (The year before, she had delivered a letter to Hillary Clinton from more than 20 black church leaders asking her to address “justice for the unborn.”) In 2016, commission member Paolo Carozza spoke about a pro-life approach to international develeopment on the Notre Dame Right To Life Panel. 

A senior administration official did not answer The Daily Beast’s questions about whether any members of the commission support abortion rights. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the commission would be advisory in nature and would not address “policy questions” like abortion rights. Instead, the official said, it would attempt to ground human rights in the founding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“This is really a commission devoted to principles of inalienable rights,” the official said. “The commission has nothing to do with those kinds of domestic policy debates of the day; it will not discuss them.”

“The commission is the most pro-women commission in the world, because it doesn't distinguish between men and women,” the official added.

The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to reduce its commitment to reproductive rights internationally, pushing to remove references to “sexual and reproductive health” from U.N. documents and threatening to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution on rape as a weapon of war because it mentioned reproductive health services. The State Department has also removed all data on reproductive rights from its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

In a press release, the Center for Reproductive Rights called the new commission “part of a comprehensive effort by this Administration to erase sexual and reproductive health and rights from global discourse.”

“Contrary to its asserted purpose, there is no need to redefine or develop foundational principles on human rights,” they said. “There is a clear and unequivocal consensus by U.N. human rights treaty bodies and independent experts that reproductive rights are human rights, grounded in the right to life, health, equality, non-discrimination and freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, among other rights.”

Amanda Kasling, the Human Rights Watch Acting Co-Director for Women’s Rights, added that interpretations of international law define abortion is a human rights issue. Even a limited discussion of of “inalienable rights,” she said, would have include access to health care—including access to family planning and abortion—as well as prevention of maternal mortality.

“For women to actually be able to fully enjoy and have a fulfillment of their human rights, you have to ensure access to reproductive health care, full stop,” she said.

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