WHO guidelines on abortion imply conscience objections are 'indefensible'

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The World Health Organization’s latest guidelines on abortion treat individuals and institutions that object to abortion as an obstacle, while ignoring the right to life.

Among the WHO recommendations is the claim “that access to and continuity of comprehensive abortion care be protected against barriers created by conscientious objection.”

“If it proves impossible to regulate conscientious objection in a way that respects, protects and fulfils abortion seekers’ rights, conscientious objection in abortion provision may become indefensible,” said the “Abortion Care Guideline” document released March 9.

The guidance drew criticism from Elyssa Koren, director of United Nations advocacy at ADF International, a legal group that backs the right to life of the unborn.

“By stating that conscience rights may become ‘indefensible,’ these new guidelines make clear that the WHO aspires to not only flout international law, but also in due course, to change it,” she told CNA March 21. “Put bluntly, the organization is looking to leverage its enormous influence and budgetary power to chip away at international provisions and eventually work to establish a new legal regime that endorses abortion ‘rights’ with no right to conscientious objection.”

“Although it lacks any legal authority to do so, the WHO wields tremendous influence, and this insidious agenda must be called out and stopped to protect unborn life and the overall integrity of the international legal system,” Koren said.

The Abortion Care Guideline document was edited by the WHO, the United Nations’ health agency, and the Human Reproduction Programme, a U.N. research program under the aegis of many U.N. agencies. The document says its recommendations and best practices “aim to enable evidence-based decision-making with respect to quality abortion care.”

The WHO document is about 170 pages long and makes over 50 recommendations to increase abortion access. Some of the recommendations are new responses to the coronavirus pandemic, including recommendations regarding telemedicine for providing abortion.

The document’s twenty-second recommendation addresses conscientious objection, contending that there is a “human rights obligation to ensure that conscientious objection does not hinder access to quality abortion care.” It says conscientious objection “continues to operate as a barrier to access to quality abortion care.” 

Among the ways to ensure abortion access, it claims, is “prohibiting institutional claims of conscience.” This puts the guideline on collision course with Catholic and other medical institutions which bar direct abortion as the unethical killing of an unborn human being.

The WHO document suggests “prohibiting conscientious objection in urgent or emergency situations” and also regulating conscientious objection in a way that includes “identifying, addressing and sanctioning non-compliance.”

Koren told CNA that some aspects of this guidance are not new regarding conscientious objection. The document itself cites previous recommendations in the WHO’s 2012 guidance on abortion.

In Koren’s view, the WHO document’s authors exceeded their authority in commenting on international law and human rights.

“WHO bureaucrats have no authority to create law through the issuance of recommendations, and there is no such thing as ‘abortion law’ in the international sphere,” she said. “There is only the international obligation to protect the right to life, including that of the unborn. It is important that lawmakers be reminded that the WHO has no legal authority in this regard, and that the power to make law and policy on issues relating to health lies firmly at the national level.”

Koren also criticized the document’s depiction of abortion as a human right.

“International human rights law recognizes the unborn child as a rights-holding person,” she said. “Governments that permit abortion are thus not only endorsing a mass-scale human rights tragedy, but also violating their obligations under international law to safeguard human life, including the unborn.”

“On the other hand, no right to abortion exists,” she added. “There is no foundation in international law, either implicit or explicit, to support the right to end the life of a child in the womb.”

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The WHO acknowledges that 75% of countries have legal penalties for abortion, but recommends “removing medically unnecessary policy barriers to safe abortion” including criminalization, mandatory waiting times, mandatory approval by family members, or “limits on when during pregnancy an abortion can take place.”

Koren said the WHO’s position deserves an effective response.

“Despite the best efforts of abortion activists to promote a revisionist understanding of the law, it is imperative that we consistently assert that international law is pro-life, and hold governments to their obligations in this regard,” she said. “Authentic respect for human rights requires safeguarding the right to life of the unborn, in addition to ensuring that mothers and their families have the resources and support necessary to welcome new life.”

The WHO has said that abortion is a “simple and extremely safe procedure” when carried out by informed, skilled staff following recommended abortion methods. It said about half of all abortions take place under these conditions. It blamed “unsafe abortions” for 39,000 annual deaths and millions of hospitalizations for complications each year

In a Nov. 25, 2021 fact sheet, the WHO said about 73 million induced abortions take place each year.

Craig Lissner, acting director for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organization, said the ability to obtain “safe abortion” is “a crucial part of health care.”

“Nearly every death and injury that results from unsafe abortion is entirely preventable,” Lissner said in the March 9 announcement of the new guidelines document. “That’s why we recommend women and girls can access abortion and family planning services when they need them.”

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For her part, Koren emphasized that the life of the unborn child deserves the law’s protection.

“Even where legal, abortion is a tragedy that often endangers the life and health of a woman, and always results in the death of a child.”

“While particularly dangerous, ‘unsafe abortions,’ meaning abortions that transpire in situations where the practice is illegal, are frequently cited by activists as irrefutable proof that abortion should be legalized,” she added.

“The WHO is correct to assert that such procedures are extremely dangerous, but that in no way justifies changing national laws to sanction the termination of unborn life. It must be made clear that the pro-abortion agenda is not only anti-life, but also anti-woman,” said Koren. “The only solution is to stop illegal abortions wherever they take place with the full force of the law to protect women and their babies. The perpetrators that perform these services must be held accountable for imperiling the lives of vulnerable women and violating national laws that protect unborn life.”

She advised addressing the root causes that motivate women to seek illegal abortion.

“Reducing recourse to abortion requires comprehensive attention to ensuring that women and their families are supported by alleviating poverty, establishing social safety nets, and guaranteeing that the fundamental needs of every child can be met,” she said.

Koren said U.N. member state governments should use their status as donors to hold WHO accountable for the “gross deviation” from its mandate “to promote life and health, not death for the unborn.”

“This likely will require significant withholdings until real change takes place, which governments are reluctant to do given that the WHO does perform many legitimate and essential health functions,” she said.

“Member State oversight is crucial as all too often the WHO engages in abortion promotion without the endorsement of governments,” she added. Koren encouraged developing countries to reject coercive conditions and “stand strong against WHO agendas that undermine their national laws and culture.

“Moreover, new WHO leadership is necessary to reorient the organization towards a pro-life stance that respects the sovereignty of national governments to exercise self-determination in accordance with international law,” she said.

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