The United States has accused the United Nations of using the pandemic to promote abortion as an essential service, prompting outrage from activists who say the move is designed to curb women's rights.
In a letter addressed to António Guterres, secretary general of the UN, on Monday, John Barsa, head of the US agency for international development (USAID), called on the UN to drop references to sexual and reproductive health in its Covid-19 humanitarian response plan (HRP).
And, after making note of the $650.7 million (£530 million) that USAID has contributed to pandemic funding, he warned that the pandemic should not be used as “an opportunity to advance access to abortion as an ‘essential service.’”
“Unfortunately, the Global HRP does just this, by cynically placing the provision of "sexual and reproductive health services" on the same level of importance as food insecurity, essential health care, malnutrition, shelter, and sanitation,” Mr Barsa wrote.
“Most egregious is that the Global HRP calls for the widespread distribution of abortion-inducing drugs and abortion supplies, and for the promotion of abortion in local country settings.”
The UN’s global HRP makes 14 references to “sexual and reproductive health”, predominantly calling for services and supply chains to be maintained in order “to protect and promote the rights and safety of women and girls”.
Based on previous experience during epidemics, including West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, there are widespread concerns about the negative ramifications of the coronavirus. Last night 293 organisations and 371 activists signed a letter published by the International Women’s Health Coalition saying they were "deeply concerned about the health and human rights impact of this request".
According to the the Guttmacher Institute research organisation, if access to reproductive health services drops by just 10 per cent in the next 12 months, roughly 49 million girls and women will miss out on contraception, resulting in 15 million unwanted pregnancies.
A similar drop in access to maternal and neonatal healthcare could contribute to an additional 28,000 maternal deaths and 168,000 newborn deaths, while the closure of abortion clinics could force women to turn to unsafe alternatives - leading to as many as 1,000 fatalities.
“While we are not surprised by the US stance, their attempts to impose their view on others should be called out,” Bethan Cobley, international director of external affairs at Marie Stopes told the Telegraph.
“The evidence is clear, when women are denied access to contraception and safe abortion, deaths, from both unplanned births and unsafe abortions, rise.
“In Sierra Leone, it has been estimated that lack of access to reproductive health services, including contraception and safe delivery resulted in as many, if not more, deaths from maternal and child health than those caused by Ebola itself,” she added. “The real impact of a pandemic can be wider and more devastating than its immediately visible trajectory appears.”
Anu Kumar, chief executive of Ipas, added: “The Trump administration's attempt to reverse progress on reproductive rights and deny essential health services is just another despicable move in an alarming anti-rights trend. We emphatically condemn the letter.
“We know that, in times of crisis, women and girls are disproportionately affected. We also know that time is an important factor in relation to abortion services, since these cannot be postponed without profound consequences for each pregnant person and their family.
“In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is imperative that care during pregnancy, which includes abortion services, continue to be essential.”
Donald Trump’s administration has consistently championed an anti-abortion stance since 2016, leading to concerns about the potential “rollback” of women’s rights worldwide.
President Trump reintroduced and expanded the so-called “global gag rule”, which is starving charities and agencies – including the UN – of funding across the globe.
And at the UN General Assembly in September his administration urged member states deemed sympathetic to their anti-abortion stance to join a “growing coalition” of countries opposing terminations.
In this week’s letter, Mr Barsa claimed that the only way to “achieve global unity” on the pandemic was to drop reference to sexual and reproductive health in pandemic plans.
“It is essential that the UN’s response to the pandemic avoid creating controversy,” Mr Barsa wrote. “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.”
In contrast Baroness Sugg, minister for the UK's Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, told The Telegraph that the UK is “committed to ensuring the rights of women and girls are protected during the global response to the disease”.
“Last month, £10 million of emergency UK aid was provided to the UN Population Fund to help improve the availability of sexual and reproductive health supplies,” she added.
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