A patient who tested positive for the novel coronavirus is taken into the emergency room of the IESS Sur Hospital in Quito on April 18, 2020 (Rodrigo Buendia / AFP)

UN falsely accused of demanding Ecuador ‘legalize’ abortions to get COVID-19 aid

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An article claimed that a nearly $50 million United Nations humanitarian aid package to Ecuador was conditional on the South American country legalizing abortions. This is false; the UN said there was no such condition, and abortion is already allowed under limited circumstances.

“UN Refuses to Send Coronavirus Funds to Pro-Life Nation Unless It Legalizes Abortions,” read the headline of a May 18,2020 article on anti-abortion news website LifeNews.

The article went on to claim that “the United Nations is using coronavirus aid to pressure Ecuador to legalize the killing of unborn babies in abortions.”

A screenshot of an article taken on May 22, 2020

The preservation of access to sexual health services in Ecuador is included in the aid package, but the UN does not seek changes to the country’s laws on abortion, officials told AFP.

The LifeNews article refers to an April 30 appeal from Ecuador’s ministry of foreign relations for $46.4 million from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which has led the UN’s international emergency response to the novel coronavirus.

Ecuador’s application, accessible here in Spanish, outlines areas of need, including food safety, health, housing and education.

The government document includes the goal of maintaining the “continuity of maternal, neonatal and children’s health and other sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic.” 

Ecuador also aims to raise awareness about the need for “safe and legal access to abortion,” the document says, which is what the online articles portray as the UN’s condition for aid.

“Any suggestion that we are using the COVID‑19 pandemic response as an opportunity to promote abortion is not correct,” Zoe Paxton, a spokeswoman for OCHA in New York, told AFP by email.

“While we support healthcare that prevents millions of women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth and protects people from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, we do not seek to override any national law.”

On May 26, 2020, following publication of this fact check, LifeNews revised its article and changed the headline, after undertaking what it said was "further investigation into the original claims groups made about the UN and the coronavirus relief plan."

To counter the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in “fragile countries,” the UN agency made a $6.7 billion appeal for its Global Humanitarian Response Plan, to be distributed to various countries according to their various humanitarian needs, including the $46.4 million to Ecuador.

Abortion in Ecuador is only legal when the pregnancy constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or health, or when it is the result of the rape of a mentally disabled woman.

Mario Naranjo, a UN spokesman in Ecuador, told AFP by email: “The plan only aims to apply national law, which allows safe abortion under two circumstances clearly defined in the Ecuadorian criminal code.

“Humanitarian aid is granted without conditions.”

The response plan is not funded by the UN, but by voluntary contributions from governments. Funds cannot be withheld at the moment as the article claims, because only 15 percent of the money had been raised by May 20, according to Naranjo.

In any case, the money would not be given to the Ecuadorian government but rather to its Humanitarian Country Team and non-governmental organizations that are a part of it.

The original LifeNews article followed a May 17 piece from the Catholic News Agency headlined: “In Ecuador, pro-life groups protest U.N. abortion conditions on coronavirus aid.”

Hector Lepez, a member of parliament in Ecuador, was one of the first to denounce the “conditions” for OCHA’s aid package, in a Facebook post featuring the response plan’s goals in regard to sexual health.

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 460 examples of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus crisis. A complete list of our fact checks on the topic in English can be found here.

UPDATE: This fact check was updated on May 26, 2020, after LifeNews corrected its article.