The Trump Administration Is Erasing Reproductive Rights at Home and Abroad
The removal of information from the State Department’s annual reports has grave consequences for human rights monitoring worldwide.
Over the past two years, most Americans fighting for women’s rights have focused on the Trump administration’s regressive domestic policies. But the administration is also attempting to erase women and girls’ reproductive rights globally. In April, the U.S. State Department published its annual congressionally mandated Country Reports on Human Rights Practices without the prepared reproductive rights subsection, after senior political appointees at the department ordered its removal. The 2018 reports are being prepared right now with explicit instructions to continue this excision.
These last-minute cuts deleted vital reporting on some of the most common deprivations of women’s reproductive freedoms worldwide, including rates of unsafe abortions, accounts of denial of family planning information, statistics on maternal mortality and its causes, and research on discrimination and violence against women in health care settings.
This erasure will have far-reaching consequences. In 2016, the State Department’s Philippines chapter included a page-long assessment on the myriad ways that government actors were creating barriers to women and girls’ abilities to access critical health care services, including reports of local government units denying women access to care, including to contraceptives. By contrast, the 2017 Philippines chapter, along with the majority of the other 194 country chapters, replaces the reproductive rights subsection with a subsection titled “Coercion in Population Control,” which simply states “[t]here were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.”
These erasures mean much more than statistics, data, and paperwork. The human rights reports are critical tools used by governments and human rights defenders around the world to hold countries accountable. The U.S. Congress uses the reports to inform decisions about foreign aid and policy. Immigration judges and refugee and asylum officers use the reports regularly when making decisions about the credibility of refugees’ claims. And academics, journalists, civil society organizations, and other governments use the comprehensive reports to further their research, augment their own reporting, and aid in their advocacy. Deleting reproductive rights from the annual reports erases women, girls, and other people who need reproductive health services from global debates on public health and puts the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities at risk by allowing abuses to occur unchecked and unreported, emboldening the violators and compounding the amount and severity of future rights deprivations.
I know this personally because I served as a U.S. diplomat working to advance international human rights, and I helped prepare these reports from 2011 to 2018. In May, I resigned my commission as a foreign service officer because I could no longer stand by and watch the Trump administration dismantle decades of work advancing human rights internationally, particularly the rights of women and girls.
When I returned to the department last month to urge my former colleagues to continue this important work, I was struck by how few career officials were left. Walking by the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, I observed an open door revealing rows of empty desks—the lights were on, but literally no one was home.
This administration has refused to appoint an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues to lead the office and has reduced office staffing by half by refusing to fill vacancies and devaluing work on women’s rights, causing many former staffers to leave the department or seek work in other bureaus. This decimation of staff and lack of senior leadership allowed the deletion of the reproductive rights subsection to occur without much internal pushback.
The deletion of global reproductive rights reporting is part of a broader effort by this administration to backtrack on decades of law and policy protecting women and girls’ rights to basic health care at home and abroad. In addition to gutting the Office of Global Women’s Issues, this administration has pursued a damaging foreign-policy approach to reproductive rights by withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council, refusing to accept consensus language on sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. resolutions, drastically cutting funding from its reproductive health foreign aid budget, and imposing the most expansive version of the “global gag rule” ever implemented. The global gag rule requires nongovernmental organizations incorporated outside of the United States to certify that they will not perform or actively promote abortion if they receive any U.S. global health assistance funds. In practice, this restriction prevents these NGOs from using any funds, including funding from other countries or private sources, to perform this work if they receive any U.S. government funding.
The U.S. government cannot credibly advance an agenda of women’s political, economic, and social empowerment without addressing and assessing the global status of reproductive rights. Women and girls are not truly equal citizens unless they can access contraception, safe abortion, maternal health care, and information about family planning free from coercion and discrimination. The erasure of reporting and data on women and girls’ reproductive rights is tantamount to an outright rejection of the basic principle that reproductive rights are human rights.
The Trump administration’s decision also flies in the face of widely accepted interpretations of international human rights law, which establish that denying women and girls access to reproductive health care is a form of discrimination and jeopardizes the rights to health, equality, nondiscrimination, privacy, information, and the ability to decide on the number and spacing of children. Moreover, restrictive abortion laws have been shown by experts to contribute to completely preventable maternal deaths due to an increase in unsafe abortions. By erasing key information from its reports, the State Department is refusing to shed light on these abuses.
In response to the removal of the reproductive rights sections, the Center for Reproductive Rights, where I serve as U.S. foreign policy counsel, sued the State Department for failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request demanding an explanation for these deletions and to force disclosure of the full reports. On Oct. 2, we joined with 96 other civil society organizations to demand that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reinstate the reproductive rights subsection in the 2018 Reports. And Congress is also demanding answers. On Oct. 1, 129 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Pompeo seeking an explanation for his agency’s actions and insisting he immediately reverse course and reinstate this critical reporting.
Congress must continue to play a forceful role in halting this administration’s backslide from promoting, protecting, and defending the human rights of women and girls worldwide. Specifically, Congress should repeal the global gag rule and prevent future administrations from re-imposing this harmful policy by passing the bipartisan Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights Act introduced by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Nita Lowey.
Congress should also develop and pass legislation requiring comprehensive reporting on reproductive rights in future human rights reports to ensure that the State Department fulfills its congressionally mandated duty to provide “all the available information about observance of and respect for human rights” in every country receiving foreign assistance or in which the United States has a vested interest. Through its oversight function, Congress must also continue to press officials in this administration to explain their harmful actions and urge them to reverse course, to ensure that reproductive rights are not treated as mere spoils in a political contest but instead respected and protected as fundamental human rights.