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State Department strikes reproductive rights, ‘Occupied Territories’ from human rights report

Acting secretary of state John J. Sullivan speaks at the release of the 2017 human rights report Friday at the State Department.
Acting secretary of state John J. Sullivan speaks at the release of the 2017 human rights report Friday at the State Department. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

The State Department’s annual human rights report released Friday drops references to reproductive rights for women and stops using the phrase “Occupied Territories” to describe Israel’s presence in Gaza and the West Bank.

The report, which covers 2017, focuses less on societal attitudes and discrimination than in previous years and more on governmental actions that encourage or reward violence and bigotry. It is the first human rights report to reflect the Trump administration’s views and priorities.

In what is likely to be the most controversial change, the report strips a section labeled “reproductive rights” that outlined access to contraception and abortion, as well as maternal mortality rates, for every country. In its place is a section for each country called “coercion in population control,” documenting involuntary or “unethical” sterilization.

Separate sections on reproductive rights were introduced during the Obama administration in the 2011 report released the following year, at the end of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

State Department officials said the phrase increasingly became viewed as a loaded term in the United States, with opponents and supporters of legalized abortion viewing it as a code word for abortion.

“It’s not a diminishment of women’s rights or the desire to get away from it,” said Michael G. Kozak, a senior official with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which issues the report. “It’s a desire to get away from using a term that has different meanings.”

The change has reduced the role that contraception plays in the annual report, which is mandated by Congress. In the version available on, each country includes a link to a 12-page report from the World Health Organization and other international health groups detailing trends in maternal mortality between 1990 and 2015.

The resulting difference between the report issued last year, which was collected and prepared during the Obama administration, and the current version is often striking.

In last year’s report, for example, the examination of India included a 12-paragraph discourse on reproductive rights that stated, “Lack of access to quality reproductive and maternal health care services, skilled attendants at birth, contraception to space pregnancies, and unsafe abortion continued to contribute to high rates of maternal mortality.”

This year’s India report, which is half as long, begins with the statement, “There were reports of coerced and involuntary sterilization,” citing pressure for women to have tubal ligations and hysterectomies.

“The country continued to have deaths related to unsafe abortion, maternal mortality, and coercive family planning practices, including coerced or unethical sterilization and policies restricting access to entitlements for women with more than two children,” it added.

Several activist groups criticized the decision to remove the phrase, saying it illustrates a tendency to downplay violations in some countries while taking others to task.

“Reproductive rights are human rights, and omitting the issue signals the Trump administration’s latest retreat from global leadership on human rights,” said Joanne Lin, head of advocacy and governmental relations for Amnesty International USA.

Another significant change was made in the section dealing with Israelis and Palestinians.

Previous reports included a lengthy section devoted to Israel and the Occupied Territories. Last year’s report mentioned human rights problems and said the Israeli government took “some steps” to punish officials who committed abuses.

This year, the section is titled “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” The introduction to it notes that the State Department sought an Israeli response to allegations of abuse and that Israel “did maintain generally that all incidents were thoroughly investigated and parties held accountable, as appropriate, according to due process of law.”

State Department officials said reports issued by other parts of the government no longer refer to the West Bank and Gaza as the Occupied Territories and that the human rights report is simply catching up to what is now standard practice in the administration.

The human rights report is considered an authoritative source for conditions in almost 200 countries around the world, excluding the United States. It includes how countries approach subjects such as arbitrary arrests, government corruption, treatment of ethnic minorities and freedom of the press.

“Promoting human rights and the idea that every person has inherent dignity is a core element of this administration’s foreign policy,” acting secretary of state John J. Sullivan said in making the report public.

Sullivan, in remarks to reporters, called out several adversaries that the Trump administration has tangled with, including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Sullivan described them as “forces of instability” due to their human rights abuses.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said those countries, plus Syria and Venezuela, are the world’s worst violators of human rights.

“The release of the report warns abusive governments that the United States is watching them, and it reminds the victims of human rights violations that we will continue to stand with them,” she said in a statement.

The report excludes the United States from countries that come under scrutiny.

When pressed to defend the State Department’s condemnation of countries for a lack of press freedom when President Trump routinely lambastes the news media, the agency’s Kozak said the difference is considerable.

“We make distinctions between political leaders saying that a story was not accurate, or stronger words, and using state power to prevent journalists form doing their work,” he said.

Last year’s report was overshadowed by the absence of then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson when it was unveiled. It was often cited as an example of the administration’s downgrading of concern for human rights.