Secretary Clinton on Maternal Health and Human Rights

August 20, 2009

In an interview in next Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Secretary of State Clinton says:

When it comes to our global health agenda, maternal health is now part of the Obama administration’s outreach. … Women die every minute from poor maternal health care. You know, H.I.V./AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria — those are all, unfortunately, equal-opportunity killers. Maternal health is a woman’s issue; it’s a family issue; it’s a child issue. And for the United States to say to countries that have very high maternal mortality rates, “We care about the future of your children, and in order to do that, we care about the present of your women,” is a powerful statement.

Maternal health is also a human rights issue, as Secretary Clinton acknowledged in another recent interview, with The Wall Street Journal:

… It’s important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It’s a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment.

In the human rights framework, one of the key articulations of the right to maternal health is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which says:

States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. (Article 12)

But the United States hasn’t ratified CEDAW (the only other countries that aren’t States Parties are Iran, Nauru, Palau, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga).

So it’s encouraging that the Clinton State Department supports CEDAW ratification, putting the ball in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s court (here’s a helpful recent primer on the state of play).

Given Secretary Clinton’s endorsement of the full range of economic, social and cultural rights (in her Wall Street Journal interview, she also mentions the rights to decent work, housing and education), her State Department should also support ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — which, like CEDAW (and the Convention on the Rights of the Child), the United States has signed but not ratified. But CEDAW is the only human rights treaty on State’s recommended-action list. It’s up to the human rights community to push for ratification of all three treaties in the years to come.