By Stefano Gennarini, J.D.
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An Executive Order on religious freedom internationally could become another important tool to fight an international right to abortion at the United Nations.

President Trump signed an Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom on June 2 in the White House, following a visit to the John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C. The order requires concern for religious freedom to be streamlined as a priority in the work of the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, including at the United Nations.

This order directs the Secretary of State to “advocate for United States international religious freedom policy in both bilateral and multilateral fora.” It also directs the Secretary of State to leverage the influence of the U.S. Agency for International Development to achieve this goal.

UN agencies and European donor nations increasingly take the position that abortion is a humanitarian right, and therefore health providers and personnel who provide international aid cannot deny women abortion, even if they have conscientious objections based on moral or religious grounds.

UN manuals enshrine the view that organizations who partner with the United Nations in providing international aid must perform and refer for abortion, even against their conscience.

Such an international mandate could have a huge impact in the international aid community. Faith-based groups are a large constituency in the international aid community and provide a large share of all humanitarian assistance. Some of religious groups, like World Vision and Caritas International, are estimated to have $1 billion annual budgets.

In March, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief issued a report on religious freedom and gender equality denying the right of medical providers and professionals to conscientiously object to perform abortions or refer for abortions.

Citing the non-binding views of UN human rights experts, he complained specifically about “accommodations” in national law that allow “the use of conscientious objection by healthcare providers and institutions unwilling to perform abortions or provide access to contraception on religious grounds.”

The rapporteur described “religious figures,” “religious edicts,” and “religious postulates” that support the equal protection of children in the womb as “discriminatory.” The rapporteur also described religious opposition to assisted reproductive technologies and gender reassignment surgery as a form of discrimination.

The expert was likely directly addressing actions of the Trump administration to allow groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor to carry out aiding the elderly and the indigent without paying for abortion and contraception against their sincerely held beliefs. “Public accommodations” is a term used in U.S. law in reference to the conscience rights of medical providers and professionals to refuse to preform or refer for abortion.

The new executive order also requires any federal agency that delivers foreign assistance to “ensure that faith-based and religious entities, including eligible entities in foreign countries, are not discriminated against on the basis of religious identity or religious belief when competing for federal funding.”

If implemented, the order could help prevent future U.S. administrations from discriminating against faith-based and pro-life groups.

Under the Obama administration, federal agencies systematically imposed mandates related to abortion, contraception, and LGBT issues in federal programming. In the international context, Catholic groups that provide assistance to trafficking victims were shut out of federal programming as a result.