WHO’s Report Is It Anyway?

By Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D.

(NEW YORK, C-FAM) In recent weeks a new paper asserting that all nations should liberalize abortion laws has been characterized by the news media as an authoritative study by the World Health Organization (WHO), but the paper’s fine print says it’s not a WHO report. Why the mismatch?

The report found that “unsafe” abortion has increased in recent years despite the fact that abortions overall are declining. It concluded that in order to make abortion “safe” and to reduce worldwide maternal deaths, restrictive abortion laws should be rescinded.

Media coverage served mainly to disseminate rather than critique the report, which was published in the British medical journal Lancet. The Lancet also characterized it as a WHO study, a joint project with the Guttmacher Institute, which is the research arm of Planned Parenthood, an abortion advocacy organization.

Notably absent from news coverage of the story is that that the WHO has distanced itself both from the views contained in this study and the views of previous studies by the same authors. Two of the authors, including one WHO staff member, collaborated previously on a paper asserting abortion is a human right.

Just over a month ago, a top WHO official asked that the signers of the San Jose Articles remove a footnote in the Articles stating that the WHO had said, “[a]ccess to safe, legal abortion is a fundamental right of women, irrespective of where they live.” (The San Jose Articles is an expert statement on the status of the unborn child in international law.) The quote appeared in a WHO paper, published on the WHO website, and referring all inquiries about its findings to WHO. Yet the official asserted that due to a disclaimer in the paper’s fine print, the Articles could not accurately say that WHO embraced the view. Organizers of the San Jose Articles removed the note.

The new study carries the same disclaimer, which states, “The authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this paper and they do not necessarily represent the decisions, policy, or views of their institutions or those of funding agencies.”

Experts have sharply criticized the most recent report’s methodology, including the lack of data regarding abortion, a reliance on arbitrarily inflated abortion statistics, the conflating of spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) and planned or induced abortions, and the use of quasi-legal terms to define its dependent variable, “safe” abortion.

Such fundamental flaws would have made the paper warrant far less credence than it received. Arguably, it was the WHO imprimatur that caused many to overlook the errors in the rush to publicize it.

This raises the question: what is the position of WHO if it does not endorse the statement that abortion is a human right? And what is the position of WHO regarding whether all nations must liberalize abortion laws, the conclusion of this most recent paper?

If WHO’s position is neutral, why doesn’t this paper say so? The absence of such a statement leaves readers and reporters with the impression that the unambiguous declaration on abortion is the position of the organization that is disseminating the study.

Friday Fax asked WHO to answer these questions but the organization did not comment.

It is reasonable to conclude that WHO officials are trying to have it both ways: to endorse the controversial research but allow the organization to disclaim views when pressed.

Scientists have noted that WHO’s policy making role is in conflict with its research role in the area of reproductive health. They have urged WHO colleagues to abandon the political side of their work. The existence of a disclaimer in this latest, highly controversial and badly flawed paper, makes this recommendation all the more cogent – and urgent.

Susan Yoshihara is Senior Vice President for Research at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute. Her article first appeared in the Friday Fax, an internet report published weekly by C-FAM and is republished here with permission.

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