White House

Nikki Haley’s test at the UN: Is access to abortion a human right?

Haley hearing: 'I don't know everything about the U.N.'

During her confirmation hearing, South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador nominee Nikki Haley said she doesn't "claim to know everything" about the United Nations. After making her case for why she should be confirmed as ambassador, s
Up Next
During her confirmation hearing, South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador nominee Nikki Haley said she doesn't "claim to know everything" about the United Nations. After making her case for why she should be confirmed as ambassador, s

If Nikki Haley is confirmed as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, the strong opponent of abortion rights could be caught up in controversy over whether to define contraception and safe abortions as a human right for women, especially in developing countries.

Being a spokesperson for U.S. policy on these issues could test the South Carolina Republican governor, who was elected in the tea party wave of 2010 and has no formal foreign policy experience.

“The way the U.S. ambassador speaks about these issues is very important,” said Yasmine Ergas, director of gender and public policy at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs, who has worked as a consultant on women’s issues for international organizations including UNESCO.

“The U.S., by the attitude that it takes on questions like abortion, is actually affecting the lives of millions of women, not just those seeking abortions but those seeking care in other circumstances as well.”

An abortion opponent at the UN?

In her confirmation hearing Wednesday, Haley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she would bring her conservative views into her new role.

“I am strongly pro-life, so anything we can do to keep from having abortions, or to keep them from not knowing what is available, I will support,” she said.

U.N. agencies such as the U.N. Population Fund have pushed for access to contraception and safe abortions to be acknowledged as universal human rights, turning the international organization into a battleground between more conservative and religious states and Western human rights advocates.

“This is definitely going to continue being a hot button issue while she’s there,” said Marsha Freeman, an analyst of U.N. women’s issues and the director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch at the University of Minnesota.

“And policy is going to be pushed to the right when it comes to reproductive issues, according to what Trump has said.”

All of my policy is not based on a label, it’s based on what I’ve lived and what I know: Women don’t care about contraception. They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all of those things.

Gov. Nikki Haley on ‘The View’ in 2012

Haley would be well-positioned to champion a more conservative view.

She signed legislation that immediately banned abortions in South Carolina after 20 weeks, with exceptions when the woman’s life is endangered. When she served in the S.C. House of Representatives, Haley voted to end abortion coverage for victims of rape and incest in the state health care plan for employees. In 2012 she was criticized for saying that “women don’t care about contraception,” a statement she walked back.

Trump administration may shift back international family planning dollars

Foreign aid to developing countries for population control and reproductive health has fluctuated depending on the administration. It saw cuts in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and was bumped back up under Bill Clinton. Obama significantly increased funding to an all-time high of $715 million for the 2010 budget.

“The extent to which the U.S. has taken very restrictive positions is a direct reflection of American internal politics, since this issue is something that plays well to certain constituencies,” Ergas said.

The use of the phrase ‘reproductive health’ . . . (does) not create any rights and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement or promotion of abortion.

John Bolton, ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, clarifying the U.S. position in front of the General Assembly in 2006

Anti-abortion groups hope Trump will follow in the footsteps of Reagan and George W. Bush by reinstating what is known as the Mexico City Policy, which prevents foreign aid dollars from going to organizations abroad that perform or promote abortions.

As ambassador, Haley would not be making policy but voicing the views of the State Department. She would report directly to Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, if they are both confirmed.

At his own confirmation hearing last week, Tillerson did not directly answer a question about whether the U.S. would continue supporting expanded access to family planning and reproductive services around the world. He has been under fire from some social conservatives for his company’s contributions to Planned Parenthood.

South Carolina Governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations nominee Nikki Haley testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday. While introducing her family and friends, she couldn't resist making a few jokes.

Tillerson’s nomination should be “particularly alarming to conservatives, who’ve spent the last eight years watching the State Department lead the global parade for the slaughter of innocent unborn children and the intimidation of nations with natural views on marriage and sexuality,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement in December.

Other conservative abortion opponents say they don’t expect Tillerson to focus on the issue but hope Haley will take a stand.

“Rex Tillerson does not wake up in the morning thinking about abortion rights,” said Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at the conservative Center for Family and Human Rights in New York, which lobbies on anti-abortion issues at the U.N. “But Nikki Haley has a solid pro-life background, and we are hopeful.”

She hopes that Haley will use her skills as an administrator to resist the inclusion of the right to abortion when defining reproductive health in various U.N. agencies’ mandates.

In every Congress since 1973, abortion opponents have introduced constitutional amendments or legislation that would prohibit abortions supported with U.S. foreign assistance.

“If the redefinition is to include abortion, right away the U.S. should get involved, stand up and say we reject that, and she’d be the perfect person do it,” she said. “I think other nations would line up behind us. They’ve been waiting for that kind of leadership.”

There also could be political impacts on Haley herself.

“Although it could get complicated, I don’t think it will be a problem for her political future,” said Richard Quinn, a veteran South Carolina Republican political consultant. “She’s really a very skilled communicator, and she is more than able to communicate a pro-life view that comes off as very mainstream.”

Sen. Ben Cardin asked South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley about Russia during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She answered that "we have to be cautious" and also said she sees Crimea as part of Ukraine.

It “wouldn’t be her style” to go to an extreme on the issue, Quinn said.

“There are some politicians who go so far in their rhetoric about pro-life issues with no exceptions that they would have trouble in a national election.”

U.S. could be an outlier among Western member states

The stance of staunchly anti-abortion U.S. conservatives such as Haley is increasingly fading from other countries’ platforms at the U.N.

“It’s become more accepted globally. Many governments have recognized that access to family planning is necessary for health and economic reasons, including abortion access to preserve women’s health,” said Freeman.

In a speech at the U.N. last year, Obama’s deputy U.S. representative to the Economic and Social Council, Stefanie Amadeo, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the “shared goals of achieving sexual and reproductive health and rights for individuals around the world.”

If the Trump administration reverses Obama’s support of such programs, the U.S. would find itself in interesting company.

“The question could be, are they going to be pushed so far right that they become allies to what has become a mini gang of countries that are always against reproductive rights, led by Russia?” asked Freeman.

In the past, Russia, the Vatican and Iran and other conservative Muslim states, including Egypt, opposed language on sexual health and reproductive rights, singling out references to abortion, emergency contraception and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

The U.S. is one of only six member states that have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, along with Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen