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US effort to remove ‘sexual health’ from UN agreement may violate law, say senators

The Trump administration may have violated federal law by lobbying more than 70 countries to remove protections for “sexual and reproductive health” from a UN agreement, according to a letter from four US senators seen by the Guardian.

The letter from the senators, all high-ranking Democrats, focuses on an effort from the Trump administration to remove “sexual and reproductive health” from a high-level UN agreement on universal health coverage.

The group of four senators wrote they were “alarmed that your opposition to abortion care – as stated in the letter – harms women and families, as well as endangers millions of women and girls”. The letter was signed by the US senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Patty Murray of Washington, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

“We are also concerned the letter may violate the Siljander Amendment, which prohibits use of foreign assistance in lobbying ‘for or against abortion’,” the senators wrote.

Efforts to remove “sexual and reproductive health” from international agreements have continued amid the lawmakers’ criticism. This week, Kelly Craft, US ambassador to the UN, said the US “could not accept” a resolution on women, peace and security because it included references to previous resolutions that included this phrase.

Removing language about sexual and reproductive health from international agreements has been a longtime goal of ultra-conservative religious organisations. The Trump administration, which relies on a base of conservative evangelical and Catholic voters, has proved a staunch ally to the groups.

Administration officials have argued the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” amounts to a dramatic new interpretation of international human rights, and an effort to establish an international “right to abortion”. In fact, language on sexual and reproductive health has been an established part of international law since the 1990s.

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In July, the US circulated a letter to 70 countries arguing the phrase should be removed. Its efforts were unsuccessful. The phrase “sexual and reproductive health” stayed in the UN’s high-level agreement in September, and the US was only able to enlist 18 other countries to its cause, including many with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Sudan.

In September, the Trump administration made a last-ditch effort to have the phrase excluded, sending two cabinet officials to the UN to argue against its inclusion.

The US health secretary, Alex Azar, criticised “language that has been used to promote abortion as healthcare”.

The senators said the speech amounted to “advocating to deny resources and education that could help millions of women and girls around the world”.

The effort so alarmed the international community that the Dutch minister Sigrid Kaag delivered a special statement on the phrase’s importance before the general assembly. The joint statement was signed by 58 countries, including western democracies and longtime US allies such as the UK and France.

“[W]e strongly believe that sexual reproductive health and rights is an integral part of universal health coverage and that sustainable development goals,” said Kaag. The programs, she said, were “ultimately saving lives”.

While the US failed to have the language excluded from the consensus agreements, it has succeeded in watering down commitments in the UN security council, where the US has a veto vote.

In spring 2019, the US threatened to veto a resolution on rape as a weapon of war. To avoid a veto, diplomats pulled the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” from the agreement, watering down protections for women in armed conflict zones.

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