Stefano Gennarini, J.D. writes for the Friday Fax — Two competing draft resolutions emerged at the UN this week on the impact of COVID-19 on women. One of the main disputes in negotiations is over national prerogatives on abortion.
Both resolutions are based on a policy brief from UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, published just before Easter on “The impact of COVID-19 on Women.” The brief seeks to designate a list of priority policies to protect women from the pandemic, among them “sexual and reproductive health services.”
One resolution, sponsored by Algeria, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Zambia, recognizes national prerogatives when it comes to “sexual and reproductive health.” The other, sponsored by Europeans, minimizes national prerogatives and gives the UN bureaucracy a broad sweeping mandate, even endorsing the UN Secretary General’s brief and a more explicitly pro-abortion guidance note from a UN human rights committee that declared abortion essential to the COVID-19 response.
The brief and both of the initial drafts of the resolutions specifically identify “sexual and reproductive health” as essential “health services” that should not be disrupted by COVID-19 health policy decisions. It is unclear if this same level of priority will be retained after the resolutions are discussed remotely by UN member states.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended normal UN negotiating dynamics, making the negotiating process less transparent.
The normal procedures of the UN system came to a halt as a result of the global panic over the novel coronavirus. Since mid-March, the day-to-day operations of the international organization have been reduced to bare essentials. Human rights panels have been canceled, UN commissions postponed, and diplomatic pow-wows put on indefinite hold. The daily deluge of dozens of UN documents is down to a trickle, and operations at UN headquarters are all but shut down.
UN member states are having to rubberstamp resolutions remotely, through a silent procedure. There are no informal negotiations of resolutions. Delegations are given time-frames within which to object to resolutions. If no objection is made, it is declared adopted. This may be why there are two seemingly competing resolutions on COVID-19 and women.
The term “sexual and reproductive health” is widely used to cluster abortion alongside more widely accepted maternal health and family planning health policies. The Trump administration has spearheaded efforts to remove the term in UN policy and use less ambiguous terminology.
While recognizing the significantly higher impact of COVID-19 on men, the UN Secretary General’s policy brief argues that “the health of women generally is adversely impacted through the reallocation of resources and priorities, including sexual and reproductive health services” calling them “central to health, rights and well-being of women and girls.”
Since before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, UN agencies promoted abortion as an essential servicethat should not be disrupted in COVID-19 health responses. Even more attention and resources were dedicated to “sexual and reproductive health” in the UN Secretary General’s appeal to the UN system for the pandemic, which also made abortion part of the UN’s response by incorporating a UN agency manual that refers to abortion as a human right.
The CEDAW Committee, a UN human rights panel that tracks the efforts of countries to implement the UN treaty on women’s rights, also came out with its own guidance note on COVID-19 telling countries they “must” provide “confidential access to sexual and reproductive health information and services such as modern forms of contraception, safe abortion and post-abortion services” during the pandemic.