On May 29, President Trump announced that the United States will terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO). The decision has been met with extensive media coverage of almost universal outrage. Even the president’s own staff advisors are cautioning against it, and most news sources depict the very notion of leaving the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic as ridiculous. Yet, from a pro-life perspective, the WHO’s failure to protect human rights and dignity throughout the COVID-19 crisis makes withdrawal on the part of the U.S. far from unwarranted.
The U.S. has good reason to be fed up with the WHO. While the full extent of its complicity is unclear, evidence has emerged confirming that the WHO covered up the severity of the virus early on. It later refused to allow Taiwan, the nation that was most successful in fighting COVID-19, to participate in last month’s meeting of member nations, apparently caring more about deference to China than the “world health” that its title mandates. This is just another demonstration of the WHO’s growing tendency to override the sovereignty of member nations and instead to act with its own agency and agenda. This same agenda led the WHO to name abortion services “essential” in Coronavirus aid policy, ignoring direct protests from the U.S. as well as the clear consensus against an international right to abortion established by ongoing UN debate.
The U.S. currently contributes roughly $420 million annually to the WHO, though it has already begun to cut funding from initiatives supporting abortion. At this point, a full withdrawal might have more of an impact than simply defunding the WHO. The U.S. could continue funding those WHO programs that do save and support human life, such as the polio eradication strategy, and humanitarian aid not including abortion, while making the bolder statement of secession. Perhaps the embarrassment and loss of legitimacy would finally push the WHO into taking steps toward genuine reform.
Of course, the move could also backfire if instead of prompting reform, the US’s departure leaves room for China to move in and assert further control. However, since China already seems to exert as much influence as possible while maintaining the institution’s neutral façade, this objection is unconvincing. Rather, the greatest legitimate argument against withdrawal involves the consequences of losing a staunch pro-life advocate in the World Health Assembly. The United States during the Trump presidency has been among the loudest voices calling out the WHO’s violations of international sovereignty, and denounced attempts to include sexual and reproductive rights language in COVID-19 resolutions. If “terminating relationship” means that the U.S. would no longer participate in World Health Assembly proceedings, what member state will take the lead in defending the unborn?
The whole situation is still hypothetical at this point because after two weeks, there has been no formal action to follow up President Trump’s announcement. Regardless, the very suggestion of a withdrawal should be heard as a wake-up call for the WHO, to reconsider their allegiance and priorities, and for Americans, to start paying more attention to the activities of global organizations. WHO’s handling of COVID19 has shown more than ever the need to be wary of placing international bodies on an ideological pedestal, lest it come at the detriment of human rights and dignity.