State Department Releases Annual Human Rights Report, Says Abortion Isn’t ‘Human Right Under International Law’

Acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan / Getty Images
• April 20, 2018 5:29 pm


The U.S. State Department on Friday released the first human rights report under the Trump administration, revealing it replaced a section previously titled "reproductive rights" that focused on access to contraception and abortion in each country.

The change from Obama-era policy involves the inclusion of a new section titled "coercion in population control," which includes issues like involuntary sterilization, the Washington Post reports.

In what is likely to be the most controversial change, the report strips a section labeled "reproductive rights" that previous reports included for every country outlining access to contraception and abortion, as well as maternal mortality rates. In its place, every country now has a section called "coercion in population control," documenting involuntary or "unethical" sterilization.

The inclusion of reproductive rights as a separate section for every country is a legacy of the Obama administration. It was introduced in the 2011 report released the following year, at the end of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

State Department officials said the phrase increasingly became viewed as a loaded term in the United States, with both opponents and supporters of legalized abortion viewing it as a code word for abortion.

Ambassador Michael Kozak, a senior official with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the bureau that releases the report, spoke during a press conference following the report's release and was asked specifically about the shift. 

"So just to be clear just on that, so taking out the language about those cases therefore means that the U.S. doesn’t believe that the inability for women to get an abortion physically or by law is an abuse of human rights?" the reporter asked.

"That – correct, under the previous administration and this one and the one before that. We have never taken the position that abortion was a right under – a human right under international law," Kozak said. "This is supposed to be internationally recognized human rights, and it’s an issue on which – some countries prohibit abortion, some countries, like our own, pretty much no restriction on it, and we don’t say one of those is right and one of those is wrong. We don’t report on it because it’s not a human right."

"It’s not a diminishment of women’s rights or the desire to get away from it," Kozak said. "It’s a desire to get away from using a term that has different meanings."

Another change that has drawn attention and berating from critics of Israel is the department stopped using the phrase Occupied Territories to describe Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, according to the Post.

State Department officials said that reports issued by other parts of the government no longer refer to the West Bank and Gaza as the Occupied Territories and that the human rights report is just catching up to what is now standard practice in the administration. David M. Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and a supporter of the settlement movement, has urged the State Department to drop the term.

Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan highlighted some countries with the worst human rights records, including Syria, North Korea, China, Burma, Iran, Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia. Sullivan also mentioned improvements in Uzbekistan, Liberia, and Mexico.

"In conclusion, let me say America leads the way globally to promote human rights," Sullivan said. "We will also continue to impose consequences on those who abuse human rights."

"Over the past year, through the Russia Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky sanctions programs, we have undertaken some of our most aggressive measures yet," Sullivan said. "No human rights abuser, no matter where in the world, is out of our reach. The Human Rights Reports are a significant part of that overall effort."

The State Department is mandated by Congress to produce a report with human rights information on every country annually.