The United Nations has officially responded to a request from USAID to remove abortion from the UN’s coronavirus response plan with the statement that, “Any suggestion that we are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to promote abortion is not correct”. The UN spokesperson asserts, “we do not seek to override any national laws”.
As a striking juxtaposition to this, the World Health Organization (WHO) — the branch of the UN leading the charge on coronavirus — has responded to the crisis in Ecuador with a COVID-19 response plan calling for the legalization of abortion. The severity of the crisis prompted President Lenín Moreno to request priority status for Ecuador from the WHO. Buried on page 22 of the resultant WHO plan is the provision that Ecuador implement “safe legal abortion”.
With very limited exceptions, abortion is illegal in Ecuador. This latest evidence of the UN’s efforts to coerce changes in abortion laws under the guise of coronavirus relief constitutes an egregious violation of state sovereignty.
Ecuador has been particularly ravaged by the pandemic, with official records indicating over 30,000 cases, and over 2,000 deaths. Sources estimate that the death toll could be up to 15 times higher than that officially reported by the government — a tragic possibility intensified by reports of corpse-lined streets and the collapse of the country’s fragile medical infrastructure.
Official interchanges between Moreno and WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom, have not mentioned abortion — a conversation that would likely spark outrage among a population that is majority pro-life. Rather than strict conditionality, what is likely is that the WHO is using backdoor pressures to increase momentum for abortion legalization during a time when Ecuador is desperate for aid and consumed by the coronavirus death toll.
Ecuador has recently undergone domestic processes to review its abortion laws. A legislative attempt to legalize abortion on the grounds of rape failed in September 2019, prompting widespread protests. The abortion debate falls squarely within the country’s domestic jurisdiction — it is a matter for Ecuadorians to determine for Ecuador, not to be imposed by bureaucrats in Geneva.
There are significant benefits for Ecuador in the WHO plan, with $7.25 million allocated for measures to minimize the impact of the pandemic, including through the provision of essential protective equipment and support for healthcare infrastructure. Ecuador is to be awarded a separate $3 million in the area of “sexual and reproductive health and maternal, neonatal, and infant health”. UNFPA, UNICEF, and the Pan American Health Organization are tasked with administration. Much of this funding has the potential to be allocated directly for abortion services, in contravention of Ecuadorian law.
The vehicle for abortion promotion as outlined in the plan is the UN’s “Minimum Initial Services Package” (MISP), administered by UNFPA. MISP is a plan for humanitarian emergencies comprising of box kits with “reproductive health materials” for women and girls. MISP staff are trained in abortion referral, and the provision of abortions. The kits include a variety of materials commonly associated with abortion such as vacuum extractors, tools for dilation and curettage, and various medications such as misoprostol, in addition to cranioclasts for the crushing of fetal skulls. To dispel any doubts that these are indeed intended for abortion, a manual is included with information on their usage for first trimester abortions.
With 25% of Ecuadorians living in poverty, and extreme poverty affecting 8.9% of the population, Ecuador is in urgent need of financial assistance. Furthermore, its vulnerability as a developing country stands to be significantly exacerbated by the pandemic. As the WHO notes, the country, dependent on tourism, is in dire straits, compounded by a dramatic reduction in exports, namely flowers and bananas.
Some have argued that the United States’ decision to suspend funding of the WHO will negatively affect relief efforts, having given $900 million in the period 2018-2019 alone, which is now halted. However, the United States, via USAID, recently made a direct grant to Ecuador for $8 million in relief funding.
It remains to be seen if Ecuador would fare better without WHO involvement. If coronavirus relief comes at the cost of sweeping domestic interference, perhaps the country would be better off relying on other forms of aid without contentious strings attached. Far beyond the abortion debate, WHO entanglement in a country’s national abortion reality constitutes a dramatic overreach that further imperils the credibility of the already beleaguered organization.