An official appointed by President Donald Trump said during a closed-door United Nations meeting that the “US is a pro-life country”, despite the fact both the law and public opinion support a woman’s right to access legal and safe abortion.
Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser in the office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for US Agency for International Development (USAID), made the statement while countries negotiated the final document of the ongoing, annual women’s rights conference.
Two diplomats at the UN, who asked not to be named, and charities serving as UN observers, were able to confirm the comment to The Independent and Ms Kozma’s continued presence during negotiations the next day.
As part of the negotiations on the roughly 70-page outcome document, issued every year at the end of the conference, Ms Kozma and the US delegation also called for deleting any mention of the phrase “modern contraceptives” and replacing it with the phrase “family planning” in order to push policies like abstinence-only sexual education.
A US official told The Independent: “While we can’t comment on ongoing diplomatic negotiations, the multi-agency US delegation is representing the administration’s policies and priorities at the CSW [United Nations Commission on the Status of Women]. Also, in response to your question related to US support for women’s health, as the world’s largest bilateral donor to global health programmes, the US remains committed to helping women and children thrive, particularly in countries where the need is greatest.”
A UN diplomat said the statement was “shocking” and that it demonstrated a “weaker” and “lower” position on reproductive rights than Saudi Arabia or the Holy See, representing the Vatican. In the context of the UN, “reproductive health” refers to issues surrounding maternal health, prenatal care, sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, and other related issues but not necessarily or only abortion.
“While previous Republican administrations took anti-choice and anti-abortion positions, they were still generally in line with accepted frameworks that recognised the importance and centrality of sexual and reproductive rights,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, acting president and legal director of the Global Justice Centre.
Ms Kozma, who failed to respond to requests for comment, previously held positions in the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, during the administration of president George W Bush. She left government service to focus on raising her children before accepting an appointment in Mr Trump’s administration.
In between, Ms Kozma became known for her writing at right-wing sites like the Daily Signal, a publication of the Heritage Foundation think tank, and espousing anti-transgender views. Her most high-profile campaign was launched in 2016 against the Obama administration’s guidance that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing in public schools.
She wrote at the time that “a boy claiming gender confusion must now be allowed in the same shower, bathroom, or locker room with my daughter under the president’s transgender policies... When I learned that predators could abuse these new policies to hurt children in school lockers, shelters, pool showers, or other vulnerable public places like remote bathrooms in national parks, I realised I had to do something”.
This is not the first time conservative views have been pushed by such fringe groups since Nikki Haley became the US Ambassador to the UN. Last year, at the same conference, in the absence of appointed administration officials, Ms Haley invited the Centre for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) to represent the US. It is a think tank that has been labelled as a “hate group” for their international anti-LGBTQ advocacy work and violent rhetoric by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a legal advocacy organisation which specialises in the protection of civil rights.
“Conservative NGOs have worked their way into the administration and are twisting the US position into something that does not respect our domestic laws,” one diplomat said.
Since the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, each state has been allowed to decide its own abortion laws before the foetus becomes viable. While a number of states are trying to reduce access to abortion – Mississippi politicians recently passed legislation to ban abortions beyond 15 weeks of pregnancy – polling by the Pew Research Centre last year found 57 per cent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The same polling found 40 per cent believed abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
As Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International told The Independent: “It comes as little surprise that now [Ms Kozma] is mischaracterising the status of abortion for Americans, which is most certainly legal” in several US states.
Ms Stern said that though Ms Kozma is a “disrupter, plain and simple, with a long history of opposing women’s rights and gender justice... and seems to reserve a special hatred for transgender children,” there is an even larger issue at play. “Someone who doesn’t respect American law and who opposes the principles of gender equality should not be empowered to negotiate on behalf of the US government,” she said, noting that Ms Kozma’s appearance as part of the US delegation has thus far been in closed-door meetings with only diplomats.
Many see the development as further evidence of Mr Trump’s distaste for the UN, which he has previously called a “good time club”. According to Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, the administration is trying to paint an “extreme position at the [UN conference on women] that…[is] out of touch with women and girls in the US and around the world”.
“The US government must prevent this wildcard from subverting American law in the negotiations,” Ms Stern said.
The women’s conference ends on 23 March. USAID did not respond to requests for a comment.
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