For decades, powerful countries and wealthy foundations conducted a campaign to create a global standard for abortion rights. Despite their efforts, the phrase “reproductive health” has been adopted, but not an international norm of reproductive rights.
Forty years after abortion advocates inserted the term “reproductive health” into the international population agenda, they are no closer to their main goal: an international norm of reproductive health that includes legal, accessible abortion. But neither have pro-life advocates been able to purge the term of its abortion connotations and so they continue to contest it.
Like trench warfare, heated debates over these words occupying mere inches of text continue to rankle decision makers – most recently U.S. lawmakers seeking ratification of the UN treaty on disabilities and UN diplomats aiming to define new development standards determining how billions of aid dollars will be spent.
How could a term gain virtual ubiquity and yet the idea behind it fail to achieve even modest consensus? The answer lies not just in what was being propagated, but how.
An international norm is adopted in three stages: “emergence” through powerful entrepreneurs who convince nations to adopt it; “cascade” when states include it in national laws and policies; and “internalization” when domestic debate about the norm ends. So say international relations scholars Martha Finnemore and Kathyrn Sikkink. The reproductive rights movement was highly successful in the first stage, less so in the second, but failed in the end to gain “internalization” due to strategic overreach and tactical missteps.
In 1973, the head of the Population Council, Frank Notestein, urged his colleagues to maintain an “anti-abortion stance” in their work. But he was outmaneuvered by John D. Rockefeller III’s assistant, Joan Dunlop, who wrote Rockefeller’s pivotal speech for the 1974 World Population Conference at Bucharest. Dunlop went on to run the abortion advocacy group International Women’s Health Coalition, and would later credit her organization for putting “reproductive health on the map.”
Dunlop was succeeded by Adrienne Germaine, who assisted her with the Bucharest speech and continues to promote abortion as a member of U.S. delegations. By 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted, prematurely, to consolidate the gains the movement had made with an announcement during congressional testimony that abortion was part of reproductive health. But it led to a high profile defeat for the movement when she lost a showdown with Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, who blocked abortion from the G-8 funding agenda in 2010. The movement suffered a number of setbacks that year, especially the revelation by independent researchers that the core piece of evidence they used to promote abortion – the World Health Organization’s estimation of maternal deaths by “unsafe” abortion – was over-inflated and based on faulty methodology. Another blow came in 2012 when world leaders rejected the term “reproductive rights” from the UN summit on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro.