An Opportunity for Obama to Take a Stand on Women’s Rights

With the Canadian government making maternal and child health the announced focus of this weekend’s G-8 summit in Muskoka, Canada, the Obama administration has an opportunity to shape a progressive development agenda that prioritizes the advancement of women’s human rights worldwide. This agenda should go beyond a narrow focus on maternal health and should lay the foundation for a comprehensive and integrated approach that advances the entire spectrum of women’s human rights. It should also ensure that women have the power and resources they need to make decisions about when, whether, and with whom to have children.

It is heartening to see a new emphasis on maternal and child health—two of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals. But women are more than mothers. They are human beings, citizens, and actors in their own right, and must be recognized as such by policymakers and advocates. A progressive approach to women’s rights should therefore include efforts to improve girls’ education, increase women’s economic opportunities, eliminate gender-based violence, and build women’s political power. All of these components are critical for sustainable development and for an effective plan to improve women’s health during pregnancy, childbirth, and other phases of their lives.

Reproductive health is broader than maternal health or a concern for women during pregnancy and childbirth. Access to reproductive health services gives women the power and resources, for instance, to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, to choose their sexual partners, and to determine whether and when to have children.

As the World Bank notes, “Women’s full and equal participation in the development process is contingent on accessing essential [reproductive health] services, including the ability to make voluntary and informed decisions about fertility.” And improved reproductive health outcomes have benefits for individuals, families, and societies, “including a healthier and more productive work force; greater financial and other resources for each child in smaller families; and as a means for enabling young women to delay childbearing until they have achieved educational and other goals.”

Conversely, the bank observes that poor reproductive health outcomes like early and unintended pregnancies, excess fertility rates, and poor obstetric care “adversely affect the opportunities for poor women and their families to escape poverty.”

It’s especially unfortunate, then, that Canada’s G-8 proposal for maternal and child health shortchanges family planning and excludes funding for groups that perform safe abortions. This decision echoes the Bush administration’s promulgation of the Global Gag Rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy) that denied U.S. funds to governments and NGOs that offered, counseled on, referred for, or advocated for legal abortion with their own money. This policy was fortunately reversed by President Barack Obama early last year, but the Helms amendment, which prohibits U.S. foreign aid from paying for abortions, remains in force.

The failure to fund safe abortion and comprehensive reproductive health has severe consequences for tens of thousands of women around the world. Between 350,000 and 500,000 women die due to pregnancy-related complications every year, 13 percent from unsafe abortions. And more than 5 million women are hospitalized each year for complications from unsafe abortion like sepsis and hemorrhage. Almost all unsafe abortion-related deaths occur in the developing world, leaving some 220,000 children without mothers and therefore less likely to survive or thrive.

Conservatives in the United States and worldwide have sought to deny women access to safe abortion and a number of other key reproductive rights and health services despite international recognition of the broad importance of women’s reproductive rights and health at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Canada’s decision is simply the latest example of this trend.

President Obama must not reinforce Canada’s proposal. Instead, he should place international advocacy for reproductive rights within a broader context, and show just how interconnected reproductive rights and health are with women’s human rights writ large. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly explained in reference to Canada’s proposal, “you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to safe, legal abortion.”

The United States has a dual opportunity to shift the debate at the G-8 summit. The Obama administration can reclaim the U.S. leadership mantle on reproductive rights that the Bush administration both abdicated and sought to sabotage. At the same time, the administration can place advocacy for those rights within a comprehensive progressive approach to advancing women’s human rights generally. Secretary Clinton took an important first step by stating unequivocally that maternal and child health cannot be accomplished without women’s access to the full range of reproductive health services. President Obama must follow by moving beyond the politically safe embrace of maternal health to stand for all of women’s human rights.

Peter Juul is a Research Associate and Shira Saperstein is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.