April 23, 2020, NEW YORK—The COVID-19 pandemic has infected over two million people, straining health systems and the economy as governments work to control the outbreak. Despite the fact that affected states have adopted extensive measures to protect the public, lack of medical resources and essential equipment remain a problem.
United Nations agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have been rendering assistance and technical guidance during the pandemic, such as through providing test kits to countries with limited health system capacity. However, this assistance often comes with an ideological element, promoting controversial policies alongside needed services and supplies.
The United Nations has expressed a commitment to guarantee primary health care and sexual and reproductive health services, including the minimum initial services package, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a technical report stating that access to sexual and reproductive health services must be guaranteed during the pandemic. In both cases, these services are linked to “reproductive rights” and include abortion as an essential healthcare service.
Over time, the term “reproductive rights” has come to include abortion, despite the fact that there is no right to abortion under international law. On the contrary, no global treaty or customary international law recognizes a right to abortion. Moreover, the most influential consensus (non-binding) document, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), affirmed that abortion policy can only be determined by the legislative process of each country, and generally discourages it, saying that states should reduce recourse to abortion. (Learn more about this in WYA’s white paper on reproductive health.)
UNFPA and WHO have continued to promote policies in developing countries to prioritize abortion as a component of reproductive health during the pandemic. This is in spite the fact that it is not recognized in international law and does not enjoy consensus. Additionally, legalizing abortion does not guarantee that it is safe or address the major causes of maternal mortality. Healthcare efforts should focus on strengthening health systems and expanding access to them, ensuring that women receive the interventions known to work: prenatal care, skilled birth attendants, adequately equipped clinics, and a strong healthcare delivery system infrastructure. (Read more in WYA’s white paper on maternal health.)
During this global health crisis, governments and international organizations should focus on supporting and strengthening health system infrastructures, as there are a serious shortages of medical resources, supplies, and personnel to attend the basic needs for the protection of the health and life of people directly affected by the virus. Essential healthcare related to COVID-19 and other serious medical conditions, and not voluntary procedures, must receive the highest priority during this time.
The dissemination and implementation of policies that promote abortion as an essential health service during a pandemic should not be tolerated, especially as part of much-needed assistance during a crisis. The UN and its agencies should help states meet essential needs and strengthen healthcare infrastructures without inserting controversial policies and practices which are not required under international law and violate local laws.
Written by WYA Advocacy Fellow Mauricio Toledo.
GLOBAL HUMANITARIAN RESPONSE PLAN COVID-19. United Nations. Publication: March (2020). Retrieved 8 April 2020, from https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Global-Humanitarian-Response-Plan-COVID-19.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2ESmB8EKJj7wJudGmccVIjEWZVpoD7bPdfxeqzz82F2rvH_vOZm7K3sBY
 COVID-19: A Gender Lens PROTECTING SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND RIGHTS AND PROMOTING GENDER EQUALITY. UNFPA. Publication: March (2020). Retrieved 8 April 2020, from
 Paragraph 8.25 of the ICPD Programme of Action asserts that “Any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process”ICPD Report, Res. 1, Annex, ¶ 8.25. The Beijing Platform for Action, the consensus document of the 1995 Fourth World Conference of Women, which affirms the ICPD Programme of Action’s definition of reproductive health and assertion of reproductive rights, is also not legally binding.