The U.S. government says it will begin using the term “sexual rights” in discussions of human rights and global development.
The statement at a U.N. meeting this week comes after years of lobbying from rights groups who have argued that the U.S. should show global leadership on the rights of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
The statement, posted on a State Department website, says sexual rights include people’s “right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.”
The Washington-based Center for Health and Gender Equity pointed out the statement Thursday and said it was delighted.
“On one level, it’s symbolic. It also sends a signal to the global community that sexual and reproductive health and rights are a part of the global development agenda,” Serra Sipel, the centre’s president, told The Associated Press. She said it follows the “huge strides” made under the Obama administration on LGBT issues.
The U.S. change comes days before more than 150 world leaders gather at the U.N. to launch an ambitious set of development goals, including one of gender equality. One of the agenda’s many targets is to “by 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services.” Another is to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.”
A deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Richard Erdman, announced the new use of the term Tuesday at a meeting of the executive board of the U.N. women’s agency, UN Women.
In his comments, Erdman noted that the United States would use the term “sexual rights” for rights that are not legally binding.
“Sexual rights are not human rights, and they are not enshrined in international human rights law; our use of this term does not reflect a view that they are part of customary international law,” he said. “It is, however, a critical expression of our support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Nevertheless, Sipel described the U.S. decision as “the United States catching up with the rest of the world.”
Last year, she and the heads of 10 other U.S. and global organizations wrote to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that “sexual rights must be explicitly acknowledged as part of the human rights framework.” They argued that not doing so undermined U.S. foreign policy goals.
The issue of sexual rights, along with reproductive rights, is “one of the most crucial, but also most controversial” parts of the new global development goals, Ann Starrs, the president of the U.S.-based non-profit Guttmacher Institute, writes in the current issue of the health journal The Lancet. She noted that topics like reproductive health services for teens and abortion have drawn opposition from some countries.