Following a virtual gathering based in Washington D.C. on 22 October 2020, the governments of the United States, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, and Uganda announced the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration. While certainly a declaration there is no connection with Geneva, and the document reflects a minority view that is not only outside the mainstream view but also deliberately contemptuous of it.
Of course, it is not the fault of the the Declaration’s sponsors that the coronavirus pandemic prevented the meeting and signing from taking place in Geneva during the World Health Assembly, as they had intended, although it is perhaps ironic that the chief sponsor and virtual host of the meeting has also had one of the world’s most famously incompetent responses to the outbreak.
In fact, the change of venue was an unearned win for the US delegation, which would otherwise have had to attend under the shadow of Donald Trump’s July announcement that the America will be withdrawing from the WHO. Instead of gathering “on the margins” of that event, as the authors admit in the preamble to the document, the Declaration was able to take center stage in Washington while retaining the imprimatur of a place, body, and nation that did not support it.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that the Declarations 33 signatories represent more than a billion people from all the world’s regions, a claim that is true but misleading. Co-sponsors Brazil and USA alone represent more than 2/5 of that population total, yet in all the Americas found only one country to join their “consensus”: Haiti, a nation about which Donald Trump had a particularly famous opinion.
Similarly, co-sponsor Hungary was unable to find a single other EU member who shared the “consensus”; Belarus, Georgia, and Poland complete the list of European signatories.
The picture in eastern Asia is even simpler, as it comprises only co-sponsor Indonesia and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Only in Africa and the Middle East does the Declaration remotely resemble a consensus regional view: in addition to co-sponsors Egypt and Uganda, fourteen African countries (out of fifty-four) and seven middle eastern countries signed on to the Declaration.
Outside the populist and right wing governments of Brazil and the USA, the supporters of the declaration are among the least free and least democratic in the world – more than a bit strange for a declaration purportedly in support of women’s health and human rights.
That’s because the declaration has as much to do with women’s health as it does with Geneva.
While women’s health is indeed named as the first of four pillars of the Declaration, that pillar is very clearly the least among equals: in fact the purpose of the Declaration is to undermine women’s rights and individual autonomy, making them secondary interests to “preservation of human life”, “strengthening of family as the foundation of society”, and “protecting national sovereignty”.
The reference to “preservation of human life” is clearly a reference to abortion laws, and the US led “consensus” is advocating for the minority U.S. opinion that human life starts at conception. Not to leave any ambiguity, the declaration emphasizes at Article 4 that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning” and adds at Article 5 that “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance…”, an almost Orwellian hat-tip to the interest of the state in giving special protection not to the woman but to her status as a mother – whether she wants it or not.
While the health of women comes first on the objectives list, it comes second to the health of unborn children and perhaps even to the interests of that unborn child’s father: Article 3 references the inherent dignity of all persons before affirming the commitment to “provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant.” [emphasis added] Once again there is no ambiguity that the signors of the Declaration mean “married heterosexual couples”: Article two refers to the responsibilities of men and women and the critical need for a “harmonious relationship” between the two.
The subjugation of the woman’s individual rights to those of her husband and family implied here is not by accident; the document affirms that it is the family that is the basis for society – not the individual, or citizen, or even “taxpayer” as we so often here from politicians. This is a political affirmation, not a legal statement, that once again provides the space in which a women’s individual and basic human rights can be made secondary to the interests of her husband or family by casting those interests first as co-equal and then as fundamental.
Thus, the necessary emphasis on national sovereignty at Article 7, which puts the lie to (already suspect) claims that the signors want to work within the UN and WHO systems consistent with the Sustainable Development goals and the UDHR: the sponsors of the Declaration are fully aware that the real consensus opinion is a commitment to women’s rights and autonomy, including full reproductive rights, because that saves lives.
They are proactively declaring that they refuse to acknowledge and will not be bound by that reality.