In Closed-Door UN Meetings, Trump Administration Officials Pushed Abstinence For International Women’s Health Programs
Members of HHS, USAID, and the US Mission to the UN asked for references to contraception, abortion, and comprehensive sex education to be struck from a document on international gender equality, calling the US a "pro-life nation."
In closed-door meetings at the United Nations in March, Trump administration officials pushed socially conservative views on women’s rights issues — including abstinence-based policies over information about contraception — that were further to the right than those expressed by most other countries present, including Russia and the representative for the Arab states, UN officials who attended the meetings told BuzzFeed News.
The Trump officials’ approach at the UN meeting makes it clear that the administration intends to extend its views on abortion, contraception, and sexual education beyond US borders to an extent that is unusual even for Republican administrations.
The comments came during the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, a two-week session described by a spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations as the UN’s “most important meeting on women’s empowerment.” The main event is a closed-door negotiation on language to include in an annual UN document that sets global standards and outlines potential policies pertaining to gender equality efforts in all member countries.
Early in this series of meetings, Bethany Kozma — a senior adviser for gender equality and women’s empowerment at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and anti-transgender activist — emphasized that the US was a “pro-life nation,” sparking a strong reaction from delegates in the room, two officials in the room confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
“When she said that there was sort of a record scratch and silence,” one UN official who participated in the negotiations but asked not to be named so as to maintain a working relationship with the other member states present told BuzzFeed News. “Everyone was like, ‘are you kidding me?’”
Shannon Kowalski, the director of the International Women’s Health Coalition, said that the Trump administration’s stances on women’s health presented in the meeting were “further to the right” than they were at last year’s commission, or even under George W. Bush’s administration. While the Bush administration implemented anti-abortion policies abroad, the scope was limited to family planning programs. Trump’s policies already expand beyond those limits.
“They’re far more extreme than the US was under the Bush administration,” Kowalski told BuzzFeed News shortly after the session wrapped up. “We saw placement of ideologues within key roles who took similar positions back then, but they limited what they applied their views to.”
Throughout the two-week session, Trump administration officials discussed shifting international policy on women toward abstinence-oriented education and teaching women sexual “refusal skills.” Those views — as well as the US’s push for more conservative policies on immigration, trade and environmental regulation — ended up uniting most of the 45 CSW member states against the US on family planning issues, six sources who attended or were familiar with meetings told BuzzFeed News.
While negotiations at the UN are often political, two officials familiar with the negotiations said that they had never seen nearly all of the other membership states — many of whom have wildly different stances and priorities on family planning issues — come together against the US. The members include several countries where abortion is illegal and punishable by fines or jail time.
The Trump administration has not been shy about its stance on abortion. On his third day in office, President Donald Trump instated an expanded version of the Mexico City Policy, a rule that prevents the US from funding organizations that provide or discuss abortions with the populations they serve. While most Republican presidents have used that policy, Trump’s version applies to all US health funding abroad — not just family planning funds that prior Republican administrations regulated. This includes organizations devoted to curbing HIV/AIDS, which the Bush administration left alone, Kowalski said.
Two Trump administration officials — Alma Golden of USAID and Valerie Huber of the US Department of Health and Human Services — emphasized their agencies’ anti-abortion views at another off-the-record meeting during the session. The goal of this meeting was for US officials to brief NGOs about the US’s “priorities on international women’s issues,” the US Mission to the UN spokesperson said.
The participating NGO delegates were instructed not to bring laptops but kept notes by hand or on their phones. Four NGO delegates who attended the meeting spoke to BuzzFeed News, including Melissa Torres, a delegate for Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and Susan O’Malley, who chairs the CSW NGO board. Two other attendees asked to remain anonymous so as to maintain a working relationship with the Trump administration.
“I normally respect when things are off the record,” O’Malley told BuzzFeed News. “But this meeting was just so bonkers.”
All four of the attendees said they were alarmed by the Trump officials’ repeated use of the term “pro-life” to refer to their agencies and their goals internationally, as well as their focus on abstinence-oriented education.
A USAID official told BuzzFeed News in a statement that they “can't comment on closed door diplomatic negotiations,” but that the US is the “the world's largest bilateral donor to global health programs, and … remains committed to helping women and children thrive, particularly in countries where the need is greatest.”
According to the delegates, the Trump officials discussed “sexual risk avoidance” programs — a coded term for encouraging teenagers to delay sex until marriage — and told the group that HHS was conducting research to show these tactics helps lower teen pregnancy and STD rates, the delegates said.
Huber also discussed teaching young women sexual “refusal skills,” Torres and two other sources confirmed.
“She spoke of ‘trying to get women to make better choices in the future,’ which is that terrifying and outmoded idea that women make bad sexual choices and that what happens to them is their fault,” one of the delegates who attended the meeting told BuzzFeed News, adding that during this moment of the #MeToo movement, it seemed “particularly regressive.”
“Valerie Huber did represent the US Department of Health and Human Services at the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women,” HHS responded to a request for comment on Huber’s statements. “The focus of this session was challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls; therefore Ms. Huber remarks focused on these topics.”
Prior to serving at HHS, Huber was the president of Ascend, an association that promotes abstinence until marriage as the best way to prevent teen pregnancy. During her time at HHS as secretary for population affairs, Huber restructured the Title X family planning grant requirements to emphasize “natural family planning” (meaning nonhormonal, high-failure-rate methods of regulating pregnancy, such as ovulation tracking). She was also involved in stripping funding from HHS’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and shifting federal funding to research about the “economic impact of sexual delay.”
Huber was recently promoted to senior policy adviser to the assistant secretary of health at HHS. It is unclear whether Huber will have influence over the US’s international health policy in this new role, or if the position is limited to domestic policy.
In order for the Commission on the Status of Women’s “agreed conclusions” to be released, there must be unanimous consensus from every member state. Notes taken throughout the negotiations and provided to BuzzFeed News show that the US contested the addition of references to “modern contraception,” “emergency contraception,” and “unsafe abortion,” among other similar phrases to the documents. According to the notes and an official involved in the negotiations, the US said that abortions can only be safe for the woman and never for the fetus.
“They were against the whole concept of sexuality education,” the UN official said, adding that the US also opposed the phrase “harm reduction,” which in the context of CSW means “accepting the fact that young people have sex and trying to teach them how to do it safely rather than just abstinence only,” the official explained. The US wanted “no mention of sexuality at all,” the official said.
The final version of the conclusions have no references to contraception, abortion, or sex education, but maintain references to “sexual and reproductive health and rights,” and “universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning.”
“The rest of the membership came together and stared the [US] down and said, ‘We’re going to still have language on sexual and reproductive health, yes we are,’” the UN official said. “And we won.”
After the negotiations concluded, the US released a statement saying, “The term ‘sexual and reproductive health’ is open to many interpretations. The United States does not understand the term sexual and reproductive health to include the promotion of abortion and educational strategies that may increase sexual risk for youth.”
It remains unclear whether the views expressed by US representatives at the UN meeting will affect which international family planning programs that the US funds.
“I do think the Trump administration will keep not funding abortion internationally and will cut back on family planning,” O’Malley told BuzzFeed News. “It is also difficult to assess the Trump administration's position on most things.”
The Commission on the Status of Women includes representatives from a conglomerate of Arab states. A previous version of this article attributed the conglomerate's actions to specific Arab states.