Image by Edgar Winkler from Pixabay 

The United Nations and its agencies are not exactly known for promoting pro-life points of view, so when UN bodies say something that seems to reflect what pro-lifers see as the reality of abortion, as happened with this recently-released report from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), we should pay attention.

Before we look at what exactly the report has to say, it’s important to remind ourselves that:

1. Nowhere, in the plethora of international human rights treaties promulgated by the UN, is there is a right to abortion. In fact, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly mentions the rights of the unborn child in its preamble. The UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits the death penalty for pregnant women, implicitly references those same rights of the unborn.

2. The reason that various UN committees, like the UN Human Rights Committee, appear to issue statements and ‘rulings’ which favour abortion access is not because of UN treaties and conventions themselves, but because of how some, supposedly independent, experts have interpreted these treaties and conventions. The Minimise Project has written before about the UNHRC’s questionable approach to abortion-related decisions: check it out here.

Because of the questionable approaches taken in the past, it is refreshing to see the UNFPA acknowledge some hard-hitting truths about the reality of sex-selective abortions in its most recent publication, which is called ‘Against my will: defying the practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality’. The UNFPA is the UN’s ‘sexual and reproductive health agency’. Their mission is to create a world where ‘every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. Despite these noble aims, the organisation has been heavily criticised by pro-life advocates for their work in advancing abortion access under the guise of ‘reproductive rights’.

Sex-selective abortion, sometimes called ‘gendercide’, is a discriminatory and sexist practice, unfortunately widespread in some parts of the world. It happens when someone has an abortion simply because it is likely that the unborn child they are carrying is female. 

This is what the UPFPA’s 2020 report has to say about what it terms ‘gender-biased sex selection’ (at page 42):

From a human rights perspective, gender-biased sex selection is a harmful practice because it translates a preference for boys over girls into a deliberate prevention of female births. Unambiguously linked to discriminatory norms and behaviours, it is a malignant outcome of gender inequality. 

This says a lot about how abortion can be central in perpetuating misogyny—prejudice against women. 

The 2020 report details how shockingly common sex-selective abortion is—at page 59, it says that ‘[m]ore than 140 million females are considered missing today as a consequence not only of gender-biased sex selection but also of postnatal sex selection’ (i.e. infanticide).. And at page 45, we learn that ‘[b]etween 2013 and 2017, about 460,000 girls in India were “missing” at birth each year. According to one analysis, gender-biased sex selection accounts for about two thirds of the total missing girls’. 

The report also acknowledges how the Human Rights Committee, a body that is no friend of pro-life campaigners, ‘has reminded States Parties that gender-biased sex selection is a reflection of the subordination of women and that they therefore have an obligation to address the root causes (UN HRC, 2000).’ (35)

The solution to this problem?

The report tries to identify a number of possible solutions to the cruel and sexist practice of sex-selective abortion. It mentions awareness campaigns, improved economic equality, and investment in women’s education. Curiously, however, when it comes to actually banning sex-selective abortions, it argues that legislative measures like prohibiting prenatal testing don’t work. The UNFPA uses South Korea as an example of this (at page 56 of the report). In South Korea, anti-female sex-selective abortion caused the country’s sex ratio (the number of men to women) to become increasingly male-heavy. Korean authorities banned prenatal testing in 1987 and launched a public awareness campaign about the dangers of ‘girl shortage’ in the 1990s. Yet, the report notes ‘the imbalance only continued to grow. By 1994, 115.4 boys were born for every 100 girls.’ The situation only improved when ‘the cultural preference for sons began to disappear’.

Interestingly, the report doesn’t consider prohibiting all abortion after the first trimester. Such a ban  would, by necessity, eliminate sex-selective abortion. At page 54, the report acknowledges that this would have an effect on sex-selective abortion: ‘[g]ender-biased sex selection, […] depends on access to abortion after the first trimester, the point at which ultrasound technology can detect the sex of a fetus’. On this basis the UN could be accused of attempting to speak out of both sides of its mouth on the issue.

Why, then, does the UNFPA not recommend prohibiting abortion after the first trimester? After all, the UNFPA explicitly states that it ‘does not promote abortion’. Much can perhaps be read into the statement, at page 31 of the report, that ‘[i]nternational human rights law, to a large extent, defers to nations to legislate on abortion’. The UNFPA may feel legally prevented from taking any kind of firm position against abortion. Alternatively, and more convincingly, the UPFPA’s desire for unrestricted abortion trumps its desire to see the cruel practice of sex-selective abortion wiped out. One sentence from the report is, from a pro-life perspective, chillingly telling:  ‘bans on sex selection are often ineffective and also infringe reproductive rights’. In a report which notes, on multiple occasions, the evil of sex-selective abortion, to equate this even in a passing manner to ‘reproductive rights’ says a lot about how high abortion sits on the list of UN values. 

Pro-lifers and the UNFPA can all agree that sex-selective abortion should be wiped out. We differ on the most effective and humane ways of achieving that. As we noted in a previous blog, this is not the first time in recent years that a UN body has acknowledged a negative aspect to abortion which pro-life advocates have been trying to highlight for years. Let’s hope it’s not the last. In keeping with our Pro-Life Pledge, let’s continue to engage with those who disagree with us to create a more just society, one in which, one day, all human life will be respected and protected.