This piece originally appeared on Ms. Magazine’s digital site
On Wednesday, Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act to direct the State Department to permanently include reviews on the status of sexual and reproductive rights in its annual human rights reports. The act has 122 co-sponsors.
“Reproductive rights are human rights,” said Clark. “The ability to access reproductive care is a key part of the survival and success of women, girls and LGBTQ+ people around the world. The State Department’s human rights reports empower lawmakers to take action against bad actors, enact policy, and advocate for the fair treatment of all people. We have to permanently include reproductive rights in that reporting to maintain current human rights standards and meet the real needs of our international partners.”
In 2017, the Trump administration deleted all subsections on reproductive rights from the State Department’s annual human rights reports. This move was part of a coordinated effort to undermine the legitimacy of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights. While President Biden has reversed that policy, Clark wants to ensure that this critical information is never blocked again, regardless of who is president.
“Women’s fundamental human rights do not change with U.S. administrations,” said Amanda Klasing, interim women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch. “They are part and parcel of the international human rights system. State Department reporting on violations of reproductive rights should not be subject to whiplash between the policies of the occupants of the White House. Congress has an important role to ensure that the U.S. is consistently and unbiasedly reporting on the rights violations that impact women around the world, without political interference.”
Federal law requires the secretary of state to report annually to Congress on the status of human rights in nearly 200 countries around the world. This information is used by lawmakers, human rights bodies and the private sector to address human rights violations across the world.
“Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights—full stop,” said Caitlin Horrigan, director of global advocacy, Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Everyone deserves access to comprehensive health care, no matter who they are or where they live. The State Department cannot ever be allowed to censor their reports and ignore reproductive rights.”
The Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights Act would require reporting on contraception and abortion access, STD rates and prevention efforts, maternal health, and rates and causes of pregnancy-related injuries and death, including unsafe abortions.
For example, the law requires reporting on how states are acting to promote access to “safe, effective, and affordable methods of contraception and comprehensive, accurate, nondiscriminatory family planning and sexual health information.” It would also include reporting on whether states have adopted and enforced policies to “expand or restrict access to safe abortion services or post-abortion care, or to criminalize pregnancy-related outcomes, including spontaneous miscarriages or pregnancies outside of marriage.”
The bill pays particular attention to health disparities. It requires disaggregating maternal health data to better understand disparities in pregnancy-related outcomes, especially for low-income and marginalized communities based on “race, ethnicity, Indigeneity, language, age, religion or any other identity.”
Gayatri Patel, vice president of external relations at Women’s Refugee Commission (WFC), says the bill addresses a critical issue: “Among the most marginalized globally are refugee women and youth,” said Patel, citing a recent WRC study showing “refugees, including adolescents and persons with disabilities, face heightened barriers to sexual and reproductive health in humanitarian settings—despite demand.”
The bill explicitly recognizes that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons (LGBTQI+) face stigma and discrimination in accessing reproductive health services, and barriers, including anti-LGBTQI+ laws, policies, and gender norms in countries.” As such, it requires the Department of State report the denial of access to sexual and reproductive health care due to these barriers in the annual human rights reports.
The law also addresses reproductive coercion, defined as “any behavior that interferes with autonomous decision-making about reproductive health outcomes.” The bill requires the State Department to report on “discrimination, coercion and violence” against women, girls and LGBTQI+ individuals in all health care settings, including in detention. This includes “obstetric violence, involuntary or coerced abortion, involuntary or coerced pregnancy, coerced sterilization, use of incentives or disincentives to lower or raise fertility, withholding of information on reproductive health options, and other forms of reproductive and sexual coercion.”
Clark says the legislation “ensures that detailed information on any deprivation of people’s access to reproductive rights is monitored, reported on, and used to inform policy.” The State Department reports are important, bringing accountability for “countries that impede on those rights, either by enabling violence or prohibiting care.”
“Reproductive health and rights is about freedom—whether people want to pursue an education, secure a job, or have a family, comprehensive health care is a necessity,” Clark continued. “We owe it to the global community to ensure that the United States is committed to reproductive justice for all.”
At a time when reproductive rights are under threat within the U.S. as well as around the world, this bill will not only improve foreign policy, but send a message to our international partners about the importance of reproductive freedom.
“No matter where you call home, health care should be a right—and that includes reproductive health care,” said Clark. “We cannot waiver on this right depending on who is in the White House. When America is silent, or worse, promoting an anti-reproductive health agenda, women, sexual assault survivors, refugees, LGBTQ individuals, and other groups who face systemic barriers to health care around the world suffer. We must permanently include reproductive rights in the State Department’s annual human rights reports to send a message to our international partners that the United States believes reproductive rights are human rights.”
“As reproductive rights are under daily assault across the world, the United States must lead the collective commitment to advance fundamental rights and freedoms for all rather than undermine the rights of some,” said Menendez. “With this bicameral bill, we are doing our part to stand in solidarity with women, girls and LGBTQI+ people the world over whose access to vital sexual and reproductive health care has been severely obstructed or entirely suspended. … We are making sure lawmakers get the full, unvarnished picture of a nation’s human rights record when formulating U.S. foreign policy.”
The bill is part of a larger legislative push to promote reproductive justice within U.S. foreign policy. Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas, calls Clark’s bill “an important part of a crucial legislative effort, along with the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act and the Global HER Act, that will bring us closer to reproductive justice for millions of people.”
The Abortion is Health Care Act would permanently reverse the Helms Amendment and replace it with a policy supporting U.S. funding for safe abortion services worldwide. The Global HER Act would repeal the global gag rule, prohibiting recipients of U.S. funding from speaking about abortion.
“We applaud Rep. Clark, Sen. Menendez, and other health care champions in Congress for reaffirming that reproductive rights are human rights and ensuring that is reflected in annual State Department reports,” said Horrigan from Planned Parenthood. “Congress must swiftly pass the Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act into law.”