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Within the framework of the World Health Organization's (WHO) definition of health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, reproductive health, or sexual health/hygiene, addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life. Reproductive health, therefore, implies that people are able to have a responsible, satisfying and safer sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. One interpretation of this implies that men and women ought to be informed of and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of birth control; also access to appropriate health care services of sexual, reproductive medicine and implementation of health education programs to stress the importance of women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth could provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant. On the other hand individuals do face inequalities in reproductive health services. Inequalities vary based on socioeconomic status, education level, age, ethnicity, religion, and resources available in their environment. It is possible for example, that low income individuals lack the resources for appropriate health services and the knowledge to know what is appropriate for maintaining reproductive health.
According to the WHO, "Reproductive and sexual ill-health accounts for 20% of the global burden of ill-health for women, and 14% for men."
Reproductive health is a part of Sexual and reproductive health and rights.
An official working definition for sexual health is that "Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled." However, while used by WHO as well as other organizations, this is not an official WHO position, and should not be used or quoted as a WHO definition.
Emerging research in the field of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) identifies a series of factors that enhance the translation of research into policy and practice. These include discursive changes (creating spaces for public debate); content changes (to laws and practices); procedural changes (influencing how data on SRH are collected) and behavioural changes (through partnerships with civil society, advocacy groups and policy makers).
Childbearing and health
Early childbearing and other behaviours can have health risks for women and their infants. Waiting until a woman is at least 18 years old before trying to have children improves maternal and child health. If an additional child is to be conceived, it is considered healthier for the mother, as well as for the succeeding child, to wait at least 2 years after the previous birth before attempting to conception. After a fetal fatality, it is healthier to wait at least 6 months.
The WHO estimates that each year, 358 000 women die due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth; 99% of these deaths occur within the most disadvantaged population groups living in the poorest countries of the world. Most of these deaths can be avoided with improving women's access to quality care from a skilled birth attendant before, during and after pregnancy and childbirth.
International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 1994
The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was held in Cairo, Egypt, from 5 to 13 September 1994. Delegations from 179 States took part in negotiations to finalize a Programme of Action on population and development for the next 20 years. Some 20,000 delegates from various governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and the media gathered for a discussion of a variety of population issues, including immigration, infant mortality, birth control, family planning, and the education of women.
In the ICPD Program of Action, 'Reproductive health' is defined as:
“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and...not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition are the right of men and women to be informed [about] and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of birth control which are not against the law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant.”
This definition of the term is also echoed in the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, or the so-called Beijing Declaration of 1995. However, the ICPD Program of Action, even though it received the support of a large majority of UN Member States, does not enjoy the status of an international legal instrument; it is therefore not legally binding.
The Program of Action endorses a new strategy which emphasizes the numerous linkages between population and development and focuses on meeting the needs of individual women and men rather than on achieveing demographic targets. The ICPD achieved consensus on four qualitative and quantitative goals for the international community, the final two of which have particular relevance for reproductive health:
- Reduction of maternal mortality: A reduction of maternal mortality rates and a narrowing of disparities in maternal mortality within countries and between geographical regions, socio-economic and ethnic groups.
- Access to reproductive and sexual health services including family planning: Family planning counseling, pre-natal care, safe delivery and post-natal care, prevention and appropriate treatment of infertility, prevention of abortion and the management of the consequences of abortion, treatment of reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and other reproductive health conditions; and education, counseling, as appropriate, on human sexuality, reproductive health and responsible parenthood. Services regarding HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, infertility, delivery, hormone therapy, sex reassignment therapy, and abortion should be made available. Active discouragement of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Key to this new approach is empowering women and providing them with more choices through expanded access to education and health services and promoting skill development and employment. The Programme advocates making family planning universally available by 2015, or sooner, as part of a broadened approach to reproductive health and rights, provides estimates of the levels of national resources and international assistance that will be required, and calls on Governments to make these resources available.
Millennium Development Goals
Achieving universal access to reproductive health by 2015 is one of the two targets of Goal 5 - Improving Maternal Health - of the eight Millennium Development Goals. To monitor global progress towards the achievement of this target, the United Nations has agreed on the following indicators:
- 5.3: contraceptive prevalence rate
- 5.4: adolescent birth rate
- 5.5: antenatal care coverage
- 5.6: unmet need for family planning
According to the MDG Progress Report, regional statistics on all four indicators have either improved or remained stable between the years 2000 and 2005. However, progress has been slow in most developing countries, particularly in Sub-saharan Africa, which remains the region with the poorest indicators for reproductive health. According to the WHO in 2005 an estimated 55% of women do not have sufficient antenatal care and 24% have no access to family planning services.
Reproductive health and abortion
An article from the World Health Organization calls safe, legal abortion a "fundamental right of women, irrespective of where they live" and unsafe abortion a "silent pandemic". The article states "ending the silent pandemic of unsafe abortion is an urgent public-health and human-rights imperative." It also states "access to safe abortion improves women’s health, and vice-versa, as documented in Romania during the regime of President Nicolae Ceaușescu" and "legalisation of abortion on request is a necessary but insufficient step toward improving women’s health" citing that in some countries, such as India where abortion has been legal for decades, access to competent care remains restricted because of other barriers. WHO’s Global Strategy on Reproductive Health, adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 2004, noted: “As a preventable cause of maternal mortality and morbidity, unsafe abortion must be dealt with as part of the MDG on improving maternal health and other international development goals and targets."  The WHO's Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), whose research concerns people's sexual and reproductive health and lives, has an overall strategy to combat unsafe abortion that comprises four inter-related activities:
- to collate, synthesize and generate scientifically sound evidence on unsafe abortion prevalence and practices;
- to develop improved technologies and implement interventions to make abortion safer;
- to translate evidence into norms, tools and guidelines;
- and to assist in the development of programmes and policies that reduce unsafe abortion and improve access to safe abortion and high quality post-abortion care
During and after the ICPD, some interested parties attempted to interpret the term ‘reproductive health’ in the sense that it implies abortion as a means of family planning or, indeed, a right to abortion. These interpretations, however, do not reflect the consensus reached at the Conference. For the European Union, where legislation on abortion is certainly less restrictive than elsewhere, the Council Presidency has clearly stated that the Council’s commitment to promote ‘reproductive health’ did not include the promotion of abortion. Likewise, the European Commission, in response to a question from a Member of the European Parliament, clarified:
The term ‘reproductive health’ was defined by the United Nations (UN) in 1994 at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. All Member States of the Union endorsed the Programme of Action adopted at Cairo. The Union has never adopted an alternative definition of ‘reproductive health’ to that given in the Programme of Action, which makes no reference to abortion.
With regard to the US, only a few days prior to the Cairo Conference, the head of the US delegation, Vice President Al Gore, had stated for the record:
Let us get a false issue off the table: the US does not seek to establish a new international right to abortion, and we do not believe that abortion should be encouraged as a method of family planning.
Some years later, the position of the US Administration in this debate was reconfirmed by US Ambassador to the UN, Ellen Sauerbrey, when she stated at a meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women that:
Nongovernmental organizations are attempting to assert that Beijing in some way creates or contributes to the creation of an internationally recognized fundamental right to abortion
There is no fundamental right to abortion. And yet it keeps coming up largely driven by NGOs trying to hijack the term and trying to make it into a definition.
- Sexual intercourse#Health effects
- Abortion debate
- ICPD: International Conference on Population and Development
- POPLINE: World's largest reproductive health database
- Reproductive justice
- Obstetric transition
- Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
- Centre for Development and Population Activities
- Guttmacher Institute
- German Foundation for World Population
- International Planned Parenthood Federation
- Marie Stopes International
- Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition
- United Nations Population Fund
- "WHO: Reproductive health". Retrieved 2008-08-19.
- Hall, Kelli Stidham, Caroline Moreau, and James Trussell. "Determinants Of And Disparities In Reproductive Health Service Use Among Adolescent And Young Adult Women In The United States, 2002-2008." American Journal Of Public Health 102.2 (2012): 359-367. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Nov. 2012
- "Reproductive Health Strategy - World Health Organization". Retrieved 2008-07-24.
- "WHO - Gender and human rights". Retrieved 2010-09-04.
- Theobold, Sally; et al (2011). "Strengthening the research to policy and practice interface: exploring strategies used by research organisations working on sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS". Health Research Policy and Systems 9 (1): S2. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
- "Healthy Timing and Spacing of Pregnancy: HTSP Messages". USAID. Retrieved 2008-05-13.
- Brown, H. L.; Fan, Y. D.; Gonsoulin, W. J. (1991). "Obstetric complications in young teenagers". South Medical Journal 84: 46–48. PMID 1986428.
- World Health Organization: Maternal and perinatal health accessed 3 March 2011
- ICPD Programme of Action, paragraph 7.2.
- The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women
- ICPD. "ICPD Program of Action". Retrieved 2009-02-04.
- UN. "Tracking the Millennium Development Goals". Retrieved 2008-08-26.
- UN. "2008 MDG Progress Report". pp. 28–29. Retrieved 2009-02-04.
- WHO. "What progress has been made on MDG 5?". Retrieved 2009-02-04.
- "WHO: Unsafe Abortion - The Preventable Pandemic". Retrieved 2010-01-16.
- European Parliament, 4 December 2003: Oral Question (H-0794/03) for Question Time at the part-session in December 2003 pursuant to Rule 43 of the Rules of Procedure by Dana Scallon to the Council. In the written record of that session, one reads: Posselt (PPE-DE): “Does the term ‘reproductive health’ include the promotion of abortion, yes or no?” - Antonione, Council: “No.”
- European Parliament, 24 October 2002: Question no 86 by Dana Scallon (H-0670/02)
- Jyoti Shankar Singh, Creating a New Consensus on Population (London: Earthscan, 1998), 60
- Lederer, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 1 March 2005
- Leopold, Reuters, 28 February 2005