Field Narrows in Race for New WHO Director-General

By | January 26, 2017

NEW YORK, January 27 (C-Fam) The United Nations’ next top medical official will be decided by May. The field of candidates has been narrowed from six to three. The race picked up momentum this week with interest groups scrutinizing each candidate’s statements and manifestos to see how they would lead on health issues, including abortion.

The original six finalists, announced in September, came from Europe, Africa, and Asia. They included four men and two women.  In October, the UK-based medical journal The Lancet published summaries of the candidates’ platforms, which prompted a letter criticizing their lack of “leadership on divisive issues” and avoidance of “the ideological divide on sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

As of Wednesday, the remaining candidates are David Nabarro of the UK, Tedros Adhanom of Ethiopia, and Sania Nishtar of Pakistan.

In their letter, Kent Buse of UNAIDS and two colleagues implied that the only candidate to mention sexual and reproductive health at all was Nabarro, and then by allusion to the “unfinished business” of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The MDGs emphasized improved maternal health, with a controversial “phantom” goal on reproductive health added later without the approval of the UN’s member countries.

Jill Sheffield, the founder and president emeritus of the reproductive rights advocacy group Women Deliver, defended Adhanom as a champion of “gender equality” with a record of “dramatically increasing contraceptive prevalence and legalising abortion” during his tenure as Ethiopia’s health minister.

Women Deliver had submitted a questionnaire to all six candidates focusing on their policies for women and girls.  While the survey asked direct questions about the controversial subject of “sexual and reproductive health and rights” (SRHR)—which does not enjoy consensus support within the UN—several candidates did not use the phrase at all, or chose to qualify it by linking it to previous UN documents which established abortion as a matter for national laws and not as a human right.  Abortion was not explicitly mentioned at all, despite Women Deliver’s continuing advocacy on that issue.

The only candidate to use the phrase was Nishtar who characterized SRHR as “central to the work of WHO and to the post-2015 global development agenda.”  While acknowledging “various social and legal realities,” she stressed that ‘her’ WHO would advocate “universal access to SRHR, including youth access.”

Since their selection, the candidates have participated in open discussions and a closed online forum with representatives of member states.  Only Nabarro chose to publish his questions and answers from the closed web forum on his website.  The strongest emphasis on abortion and SRHR came from the Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

In response to a question from the Netherlands about SRHR in the context of the Zika virus, Nabarro acknowledged that while a woman who receives a diagnosis of a fetal abnormality might seek an abortion, “This might not be permissible under national law.”

Nabarro emphasized the WHO’s role in providing evidence, while acknowledging the fact that “[n]ot all Member States can be expected to act on such information in the same way” and that governments “will make their own decisions on how they use the information in national programmes.”

He added that, in his personal opinion, “women will never be able to contribute fully to the […] sustainable development agenda unless they are able to access comprehensive reproductive health care.”