Inside Trump’s Plan to Scale Back U.N. Resolutions on Sexual Health, Violence Against Women

Internal memos reflect the growing influence of conservative Christians in the Trump administration.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The State Department is directing American diplomats around the world to scale back U.S. support for a raft of overseas sexual and reproductive health programs that proponents see as vital to women’s health, but conservatives believe promote abortion and sexual activity among young people.

New State Department directives, outlined in internal memos obtained by Foreign Policy, show how the Trump administration is instructing U.S. diplomats at the United Nations to push back on U.N. resolutions on women’s issues, outlining so-called red lines on language related to sexual health and sexual harassment.

The memos underscore the growing influence under President Donald Trump of Christian social conservatives, who have scored a series of successes in recent weeks, including the White House decision to consider rolling back rights for transgender Americans in federal civil rights law. Much of the administration’s effort is focused on the U.N., where diplomats are discussing a raft of General Assembly resolutions on health, education, and social issues. In these discussions, U.S. diplomats have sought to strike references to the word “gender,” as the Guardian first reported on Oct. 25. 

The administration’s positions have driven a wedge between the United States and its Western partners from Europe to Latin America, drawing it closer to more socially conservative countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia.  

One of the memos obtained by FP says the United States can no longer use the phrases “sexual and reproductive health” or “comprehensive sexuality education,” saying such terms promote abortions and normalize sexual activity for young people.

The first phrase, “sexual and reproductive health,” is broadly accepted in international forums and enshrined in U.N. resolutions and treaties involving international organizations. Usage of the second phrase, “comprehensive sexuality education,” is still subject to debate at the United Nations.

It remains unclear whether the United States is willing to break consensus in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly if it fails to secure the changes it is seeking.

In previous U.N. meetings, including a major conference in March on the Commission on the Status of Women, the United States ultimately backed down from some of its most hard-line positions.

Last week, the United States backed down on demands to eliminate the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” from a final document at a Global Conference on Primary Health Care in Astana, Kazakhstan. But in exchange for joining the consensus, the United States insisted on including a footnote affirming that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.”   

But the latest pushback has privately angered some U.S. diplomats, who worry that in the service of an anti-abortion agenda, the administration might hamper broader U.N. initiatives on global and women’s health.

“This is not a symbolic gesture,” said Beirne Roose-Snyder, the director of public policy at the Center for Health and Gender Equity, an organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.S. foreign policy. “It is a real harm to the health and rights of individuals, families, and communities and undermines the prevention and treatment of HIV as well as the avoidance of maternal deaths and unwanted pregnancies.”

A State Department spokesperson referred to the department’s policy of not commenting on allegedly leaked documents, and declined to comment on U.S. negotiating positions at the U.N., but said Washington was committed to protecting women and children and promoting global health issues.

“The United States is and will remain a defender of women and children, and a global leader in funding for programs to improve the health, life, dignity, and well-being of women, their children and their families,” the spokesperson said.

The State Department, according to several officials, has yet to formulate a clear policy on some hot-button cultural and sexual issues, such as gender, leaving it to political appointees to promote policies favored by Christian conservatives outside of standard internal processes.

“The traditional norms, procedures, and checks and balances that have been in place are being tossed aside,” said one State Department official. “Less than 10 people, all political appointees, call the shots.”

The rollback on U.N. resolutions has largely been driven by the White House Domestic Policy Council, as well as a small group of political appointees in the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has been seeking a more influential role in U.N. debates on gender and sexual reproductive rights. Current and former officials say the broad influence of political appointees at USAID and Health and Human Services in diplomatic negotiations is a departure from previous practices.

Another directive, outlined in the draft memo that describes U.S. negotiating positions on a host of U.N. issues, states: “DOJ cannot support a resolution that conflates physical violence against women with sexual harassment.” The acronym is an apparent reference to the Department of Justice. “Not all forms of sexual harassment rise to the level of criminal offenses,” the memo says.

The position undercuts decades of internationally accepted legal frameworks that define sexual harassment as a form of violence against women, according to diplomats and sexual health advocates.

The draft memo recommends having the U.N. make distinctions between violence, abuse, and harassment.

In a second draft memo viewed by FP on a U.N. resolution on family issues, U.S. diplomats were instructed to advance a proposal acknowledging that “marriage is the foundation of the family and society” and children benefit most in “families headed by a father and mother.” The benefits, according to the proposal, include lower poverty rates, lower obesity rates, and lower likelihood of violence and mental illness.

The State Department did not directly respond when asked what the basis was for saying these benefits could only come from children being raised by a “father and mother” as opposed to same-sex parents.

Diplomats and sources familiar with internal U.N. deliberations say the United States withdrew the proposed language shortly after introducing it due to strong international pushback. But one diplomatic source told FP that some in Washington are still hoping to preserve that language.

Social conservative and anti-abortion advocacy groups, some of whom have long criticized U.N. stances on sexual and reproductive health issues, are likely to cheer the U.S. positions. Such groups have argued they will bring U.N. resolutions more in line with the Trump administration’s anti-abortion policy. In May 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rolled out a plan called “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” that formally instituted a Trump directive to cut U.S. assistance for foreign organizations that perform or educate people on abortions.

But Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, described the positions at the U.N. as “regressive.”

She called them “just another manifestation of a foreign policy that is already having devastating consequences on the lives of millions of women and girls worldwide.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch