Next month, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity on the global stage to commit itself to protecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights. The United States will appear at the United Nations Human Rights Council in mid-March for the adoption of the report from the United States’ Third Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The administration should use the opportunity to signal its commitment to protecting reproductive rights as human rights, and then back up this commitment with action.
The administration, which announced its intention to reengage with the U.N. Human Rights Council more generally, has taken first steps to undo some of the Trump-era wrongs causing devastating harm to sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice, and particularly impacting marginalized communities. Importantly, the Jan. 28 Presidential Memorandum on Protecting Women’s Health at Home and Abroad repeals the “Global Gag Rule”, which prohibits foreign organizations receiving U.S. global assistance funds from providing abortion information, referrals, or services, even if they use a separate funding source to do so. The memo also directs the Department of Health and Human Services to consider rescinding regulations prohibiting clinics receiving Title X family planning funds from referring patients for abortion services; withdraws United States’ sponsorship from the anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ Geneva Consensus Declaration signed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and restores funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) to support sexual and reproductive health needs globally. Immediately after taking office, President Biden also reversed the Trump administration’s effort to withdraw from the World Health Organization, signaling resolve to re-engage with the international community to support global health, including sexual and reproductive health.
But there is much more to be done. And the UPR, a comprehensive human rights review that takes place for each country before the U.N. Human Rights Council every four years, is an occasion for the Biden administration to proclaim its commitment to comprehensively address the extraordinary damage the Trump administration did to reproductive health care access globally and within the United States.
Accept UPR Recommendations Focused on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
During the United States’ Third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, the United States received hundreds of recommendations from U.N. member states on a range of important issues, including racial injustice, police accountability, capital punishment, climate change, immigration and asylum policy, and education. A significant number of recommendations focused on improving equitable access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and services, advancing universal access to maternal health care, ending restrictions on international aid for sexual and reproductive health services, and improving access to basic health services for migrants and refugees in detention.
The U.S. national report for the UPR, submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council by the Trump administration prior to the review, unsurprisingly rejected any human rights protections for sexual and reproductive health, including access to abortion services. The Trump administration represented the United States during the review itself, and likewise disavowed any human rights protections for sexual and reproductive health and rights.
However, it is the Biden administration that will return to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March for the report’s formal adoption. It is up to the new administration to formally recognize and respond to each of the UPR recommendations.
When it does so, the Biden administration must recommit the United States to upholding the full spectrum of human rights protections by fully accepting all sexual and reproductive health and rights-related recommendations. On the international stage, it should unequivocally repudiate the shameful and devastating policies and approaches of the Trump administration and acknowledge the disproportionate harms experienced by marginalized communities, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, people with low-income or living in poverty, and people who are incarcerated.
Take Action to Uphold Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice
But simply repudiating the past and proclaiming an intent to do better is not enough. The new administration must also act – through regulatory and budget processes, State Department policy and action, and support of legislation to further sexual and reproductive health and rights, domestically and abroad.
The Biden administration should rescind additional Trump-era regulations, including those that allow health care workers to deny reproductive health services and information to patients, and those that enable employers and universities to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees and students. The administration must promote reproductive health policies guided by science, not ideology, including by allowing access to medication abortion by telemedicine. Moreover, the new administration should submit a budget proposal that does not include the discriminatory Hyde Amendment or related abortion funding restrictions.
The administration should restore reporting on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and support the Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act; disavow the report by the Trump-era State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights; and stop over-broad implementation of the Helms Amendment and push for its Congressional repeal through the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act. The Biden administration should adhere to core human rights treaties and support the inclusion and recognition of sexual and reproductive rights as fundamental human rights in U.N. processes.
In addition, the administration should champion legislation that ensures access to abortion care globally and in the United States. The Biden administration should support passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would provide safeguards against abortion bans and medically unnecessary restrictions; the EACH Woman Act, which would reverse the Hyde Amendment and related abortion funding restrictions; and the Global HER Act, which would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule.
The administration must also act to end racial disparities in maternal health care and advance progressive maternal health policy, including by championing the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a set of bills that address maternal health issues faced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color, veterans, women who are incarcerated, and others impacted by failings of the maternal health system.
Reaffirm and Realize Reproductive Rights as Human Rights
There is clear and unequivocal consensus by U.N. human rights treaty bodies and independent experts that reproductive rights are human rights, grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core human rights treaties. They are integral to the realization of the rights to health, life, equality, information, education, privacy, freedom from discrimination and violence, and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, among others.
With the UPR, the Biden administration has an immediate opportunity to reaffirm these rights and commit to make stronger protections a reality, both within the United States and around the world.