By Removing Reproductive Rights, State Department Sets a Dangerous Precedent in US Human Rights Reports

The US Department of State recently released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017. The reports provide the US government’s analysis of the state of human rights in over 200 countries. They have historically served advocates and diplomats to shed light on violations and detrimental policies, while furthering dialogue and fostering accountability. Yet, the reports for 2017 were edited to reflect the Trump administration’s disregard for reproductive rights by eliminating comprehensive reporting on these issues. This sends the unmistakable signal that violations of reproductive rights do not matter.

This year’s reports removed the section titled “Reproductive Rights” and replaced it with the much narrower heading, “Coercion in Population Control.” This change has major implications for the substance of the reporting. In many cases, where the 2016 reports contained comprehensive information about the availability of contraception, maternal health care, and other key facets of reproductive rights, the 2017 reports offer only the narrowest look at coercive practices. This effectively obscures and shrouds substantial human rights violations.

Last year’s report on El Salvador, for example, documented the effects of the country’s complete abortion ban, including the wrongful imprisonment of women following miscarriages. The report noted that “between 1999 and 2011, 17 women (referred to as “Las 17”) were charged for having an abortion and convicted of homicide following obstetric emergencies and were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.”

Fast forward to this year’s report, which simply states: “(t)here were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.” Reporting on Las 17 and the effects of the country’s draconian abortion laws were omitted, despite the fact that most of the women remain imprisoned and legal challenges are ongoing. In fact, in November 2017, following a visit to the country the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights deemed the imprisonment of these women unjust and appealed for their immediate release.

In the case of Argentina, the 2016 report discussed the case of Bélen, a pseudonym for a 27-year-old woman, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for “aggravated homicide.” Authorities in Tucumán had claimed her 2014 miscarriage was an induced abortion. As with El Salvador, the 2017 report is limited to a statement on the lack of reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization; omitting the fact that Belen’s conviction was finally overturned in April 2017.

Similar changes are seen across other 2017 country reports. Details on maternal mortality In Pakistan’s and India’s reports were replaced with a link to the World Health Organization’s publication on maternal mortality trends. Detailed information about the availability of contraceptive information and services, as well as challenges women and girls face in seeking to delay or prevent pregnancy in both countries were also removed from this year’s reporting. Just when the Department of State was moving towards a comprehensive reporting model, it is now curtailing vital information for accountability on human rights.

When questioned about the removal of reporting on reproductive rights, Acting Secretary John J. Sullivan argued falsely that the term “is not derived from an international treaty that has a definition or derived from US law.” However, reproductive rights has long been an internationally accepted term, since the US joined 178 other nations and formally recognized reproductive rights at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. This year’s reports are yet another thinly disguised effort by the Trump administration to undermine international consensus and subvert reproductive rights.

Coercion in reproductive health is a serious human rights violation, but it is far from the only attack on reproductive rights that women face globally. Just as forced or coerced sterilization is a violation of both medical ethics and human rights, so is preventing people from deciding whether, when, how, and with whom they want to have children. To provide a truly comprehensive picture of the global human rights landscape, the State Department must include reporting on all of these violations. Omitting these critical elements of the report dehumanizes women and their struggles to exercise their reproductive rights as human rights.

Photo: State Department

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