WHO board agrees to engage with reproductive rights NGO after split vote

June 06, 2024

*This article originally appeared in DevEx.

After months of delay, World Health Organization board members finally voted to admit a reproductive rights NGO as a nonstate actor that can participate in WHO sessions.

Several member states were against giving the Center for Reproductive Rights the privilege of being admitted in “official relations” with WHO — meaning it can participate in WHO meetings, make statements when permitted, and collaborate on programs — because of its work, which includes protecting and advancing abortion rights globally. But on Tuesday, the organization was finally admitted after a 17-13 vote in their favor.

Opposing countries, particularly those representing the African and Eastern Mediterranean regions, argued that the NGO’s work does not align with their national laws and religious and cultural contexts and tried to postpone the decision yet again.

“We are here not speaking about lifesaving interventions which [are] actually accepted and allowed within most of the member states here,” said the delegate from Egypt. “We cannot accept … the advocacy of self-determination, where children can have the right to choose their gender. We cannot accept unconditional abortion.”

WHO engages with various nonstate actors on a range of health topics to support countries in their efforts to advance universal health coverage. These engagements are reviewed and implemented according to WHO’s policies and rules, including the Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors commonly referred to as FENSA.

At present, there are 218 nonstate actors in official relations with WHO.

A contentious issue

Sexual and reproductive health and rights, and access to safe abortion in particular, are contentious issues that have faced increasing backlash in many countries. Despite being part of WHO’s list of essential health care services, around 45% of abortions done globally are unsafe, posing risks to women’s physical and mental health.

Abortion is criminalized in some African countries — in Egypt it is severely restricted, only allowed to save the life of a married woman, or if a fetus is in danger, but not in cases of rape or incest.

There has also been growing pushback at the World Health Assembly when it comes to sexual reproductive health and rights “and anything having to do with gender, ” according to Elisha Dunn-Georgiou, Global Health Council‘s president and executive director.

Read the full article here.