“You cannot make progress on gender equality or broader human development without safeguarding women’s reproductive health or rights,” she declared. Clinton is adamant that reproductive health includes abortion.
The undisputed leader in the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination was the highlight of International Women’s Day at UN headquarters last Friday, drawing thunderous applause from a well-heeled audience as she decried how women’s equality remains “the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”
Reproductive rights are the starting point for a successful development agenda, according to the former U.S. Secretary of State who called this a “bedrock truth.” Many countries do not share that truth.
The most recent UN conference on development, held in 2012 while Clinton was U.S. Secretary of State, did not mention reproductive rights, instead emphasizing social and economic development.
Controversy over the term is already disrupting negotiations for the post-2015 development agenda, a new global scheme to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire in 2015.
Abortion still divides political parties even in progressive countries. The European Union is not united on the issue of reproductive rights and abortion.
Last week, Norway, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia berated representatives of Kenya and Hungary for failing to include reproductive rights in a progress report on UN discussions about sustainable development goals. Fifty-one out of 193 countries mentioned reproductive rights during the discussions, according to them.
The report is designed as a basis for further discussion. It mentions sexual and reproductive health and omits the term “reproductive rights.”
Reproductive rights policies have channeled billions of dollars to groups that perform or promote abortion.
Few countries expected that outcome when reproductive rights were mentioned in a 1994 UN conference on development. Hillary Clinton is credited with playing a behind-the-scenes role in getting that conference to endorse reproductive rights as a paradigm for development, even as she failed to obtain a right to abortion.
Critics of the reproductive rights approach to development question the priorities of its proponents.
Most developing countries agree that men and women have a right to freely marry and found a family, and use family planning, but remain unmoved by calls for sexual liberation and sexual autonomy, often characterized as symptoms of western decadence and associated with multiple health risks.
Groups concerned with improving maternal health, one of the Millennium Development Goals on which least progress has been made, complain that donor countries generously fund reproductive rights initiatives while saving women in childbirth lags behind.
Critical measures to improve maternal health, like emergency obstetric care and skilled birth attendants, receive scant attention from reproductive rights proponents who are more concerned with a broad agenda for sexual autonomy and sexual liberation.
Despite Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments as the wife of a powerful politician and in her own career, she remains a polarizing figure. As her shadow campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination ratchets up she may be setting her sights on one more chance to make abortion a human right. In 1994 as now, it remains a tall order.