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Exclusive: Italy pushes for permanent Vatican role in UN health talks

Critics say that giving the Holy See a fixed seat at the World Health Assembly could endanger sexual and reproductive rights worldwide Español Italiano

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost
13 May 2021, 10.42am
The Vatican, Rome
Flickr/DavidMacchi/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Italy is pushing for the Vatican – a steadfast opponent of reproductive and sexual rights – to have a permanent role in UN health talks, openDemocracy can reveal. 

A handful of other European countries, including conservative Hungary and Poland, are understood to be co-sponsors of Italy’s draft resolution to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Since February, Italy has been led by a coalition that includes both the right-wing Lega party and the centre-left Democratic Party. The government’s key, stated goal is to tackle health, economic and social crises related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it has also advanced a resolution to formalise the status of the Holy See at the WHA to participate in debates and meetings including those of policy and budget committees – to the alarm of reproductive and sexual rights advocates. 

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Jessica Stern, executive director of the LGBTIQ rights group OutRight Action International, contrasted the WHO’s mission to support the health of all people with the Vatican’s “exclusionary” position towards sexual minorities. 

“The WHO is no place for religiously based exclusion, especially in the midst of a pandemic which has disproportionately harmed those who are most vulnerable, including LGBTIQ people and women,” she told openDemocracy. 

Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, said the Vatican has tried to thwart progress on women’s and LGBT rights at the UN for decades. Church doctrine on sexual and reproductive health issues, Manson added, “has life or death consequences, particularly in the poorest parts of the global south. It’s very serious.”

When Italy’s draft resolution was first shared with government delegations earlier this month, it proposed giving the Holy See the right to co-sponsor decisions on any topic – potentially including abortion, contraception and LGBT rights issues it opposes.

This week, Italy backtracked on this initial draft. The current text – seen by openDemocracy – is more limited: it would only let the Vatican “co-sponsor draft [WHA] resolutions and decisions that make reference to the Holy See”. 

This appears to bring the proposal in line with the Vatican’s current role at the UN general assembly. It also formalises a decades-long ad hoc arrangement in which it has been invited to the WHA each year at the discretion of its director-general. 

The text would give the Holy See a permanent seat at the table, though it will still not be allowed to vote. Rights advocates are still concerned, however – because of how the Vatican has used other UN bodies to “obstruct” sexual and reproductive rights. 

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), argued: “Pope Francis gives the Vatican a softer image, but its international diplomacy and the content behind it hasn’t changed.”

“With such an institutionalised status at the WHA, as opposed to courtesy invitations, the Holy See could start acting here as it does elsewhere in the UN and that could cause trouble for sexual and reproductive rights,” Datta warned. 

Caroline Hickson, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), also warned that strengthening “the conservative influence of the Catholic Church in this unique and vital arena for international collaboration on public health […] could spell disaster for women’s reproductive health and rights.”

Anti-rights track record

The Vatican has long opposed access to abortion, contraception, surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) – as well as marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. 

Stern at OutRight Action International cited as examples previous Vatican guidance “denying the existence and rights of transgender and intersex people”, and advocacy at the UN “against numerous gender and LGBTIQ equality initiatives”.

Datta also noted that Vatican delegations to Council of Europe working groups have included representatives from the European Center for Law and Justice (a branch of a US group run by Jay Sekulow, a former personal lawyer to Donald Trump).

Gualberto Garcia Jones, the Holy See’s legal officer at the Organization of American States (OAS), is also on the board of CitizenGO – which launched a 2020 petition to defund the WHO over “promoting Communist China's false COVID information”.

Several Vatican officials were also listed as speakers in the programme of the 2019 summit of the World Congress of Families. This is a network of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights movements, founded by US and Russian ultra-conservatives. 

Negotiations over Italy’s resolution are ongoing behind closed doors and positions appear to be changing rapidly – both within the European Union and internationally. An informal meeting over the text was held this morning. 

None of the states believed to be co-sponsors of the resolution, including Italy, responded to requests for comment. The Holy See also did not reply. 

Last October, conservative governments led by the US under Trump’s administration released their ‘Geneva Consensus’. It was originally intended to be launched on the margins of the 2020 WHA, but was postponed because of the pandemic. 

This declaration states, among other things, that “there is no international right to abortion”. While some expected it to die after Trump left office, it has not – and continues to be a global organising tool for conservative states and movements. 

This year’s WHA is taking place in Geneva from 24 May to 1 June 2021.

According to the WHO, every year millions of women around the world are admitted to hospital, and tens of thousands of women die, as the result of unsafe abortions – which are more common where abortion is illegal. 

Additional reporting by Nandini Archer and Lou Ferreira

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