WHO No Bellwether for World’s Mothers

Nora Sullivan, M.P.A  

In a recent column in the Huffington Post, Dr. Anu Kumar, the Executive Director of Ipas, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the availability of abortion worldwide, bemoans efforts in the United States in any way to limit abortion on demand or hold abortion clinics to a significant standard of care.  She points to recent laws passed in Arizona and elsewhere as specific examples of antiquated thinking on the part of Americans.


Dr. Kumar’s proof that the United States is “doing everything wrong here” can be found in the World Health Organization’s new publication “Safe Abortions: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems.”  Dr. Kumar notes, “Whether it’s gestational limits, ultrasounds, counseling or human rights, nearly every policy proposed by anti-abortion legislators directly contradicts the new WHO guidelines, which are based on years of consultation and discussion, incorporating scientific evidence and international human rights standards.”



Despite her passion for the abortion issue and the depression she finds inevitable when considering efforts to curb it, Dr. Kumar misses several points about the subject of abortion and women’s health.



The World Health Organization is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system.  As a specialized agency of the U.N., the WHO sets norms and standards for health practices throughout the world.  Its self-professed goal is “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health.”  While such an institution is invaluable for the purpose of eradicating smallpox, abortion should not be within its sphere of influence.   Abortion is not health care.  Pregnancy is not a disease to be treated with drugs or surgery.  It is a natural state of life produced in most circumstances by voluntary behaviors that have a natural teleology.  Abortion is not the moral equivalent to an appendectomy, but always the killing of a fetal human being and often the exploitation of a woman in distress.



Forgetting for a moment that abortion is not a legitimate health service, it is unclear why Kumar expects the United States to require only the bare minimum of health standards for its people.  When the WHO is laying down guidelines for a vast array of countries, it is difficult to insist that all nations, including the poorest, meet the upper echelon of modern medical practices.  So why the United States should not insist on better safety regulations and achieve a higher quality of care than Sub-Saharan Africa is difficult to understand.



According to the WHO, “Both vacuum aspiration and medical abortion can be provided at the primary-care level on an outpatient basis and do not require advanced technical knowledge or skills, expensive equipment such as ultrasound, or a full complement of hospital staff (e.g. anaesthesiologist).”  The recent death of Tonya Reaves due to complications from her abortion performed at a Chicago Planned Parenthood should demonstrate that this is not the case and encourage all Americans to insist on safer conditions for women with highly trained medical professionals attending them.   Within the past year, 15 states have investigated abortion clinics for compromising the health and safety of their patients.  This merely highlights the need for appropriate regulations to guard against unsanitary conditions, inferior equipment, and poorly trained staff.



A very specific charge that Dr. Kumar levels is that recent laws passed in Arizona and elsewhere require doctors to “lie” to women about their unborn child’s ability to feel pain.  She makes this claim despite the growing number of physicians and neurologists who insist that children at 20 weeks gestation are “fully capable of experiencing pain.”  If we want women in our society to make fully informed decisions, it is important that they understand exactly what abortion entails.  If the WHO wants to keep women in the dark about various aspects of abortion, the United States has a responsibility to its people not to comply.



The fact that the U.S. is diverging from WHO on the issue of abortion does not warrant the distress that Dr. Kumar is obviously feeling.  In its overall defense of life and concern for mothers, the U.S. is surely more in line with the original intent of the United Nations General Assembly, which declared in 1966, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.  No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”  (Article 6.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.)



If the WHO and the international community are content to abandon women to subpar medical practices and the future generation to tragic deaths, the U. S. should not be in step with them.  The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.”  Even if the U.S. must stand alone on this issue, it must not forget the intrinsic dignity of every human life.  As every mother has told her child at least once, “Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.”


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