Geneva (27 September 2018)- Speaking ahead of the International Day on Safe Abortion, a group of United Nations human rights experts urged governments across the world to decriminalise abortion and enhance their progress towards ensuring the right of every woman or girl to make autonomous decisions about her pregnancy. This is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality, privacy and physical and mental integrity and is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights and freedoms.
Of the many challenges to gender equality that women face throughout their lives, the area of women’s sexual and reproductive health remains one of the most contested, and is among the fields in which women are facing the biggest backlash. Persistent discrimination in the area of sexual and reproductive health through denial of autonomy and failure to recognize the specific needs of women and girls has a debilitating impact on women’s capacity to claim equal standing in all aspects of life. However, the experts are hopeful that the important steps which have been taken in some countries to reclaim women’s sexual and reproductive rights could be echoed in others. Most recently, through popular vote as well as legislative and judicial actions, efforts are being made to secure women’s access to safe abortion.
Legal frameworks for abortion have typically been designed to control women's decision-making through the use of criminal law. Many legal frameworks generally prohibit abortion and make it legal only on specific grounds that do not capture the range of circumstances in which women and girls may need abortions. Moreover, strict time limits for abortion often cause women to be in situations where their abortions become illegal. These legal restrictions frequently converge with the practical barriers to effectively deny abortion to pregnant women and girls at the expense of their dignity and well-being.
Women face many obstacles to access to abortion, including the unaffordability and inaccessibility of services due to geographic and information barriers, poor quality of services and conscientious objection. Conscientious objection, in particular, cannot be a basis for denying women access to abortion and the states need to regulate the procedure to secure accessibility of abortion.
Furthermore, the over medicalization of abortion procedures is another issue of concern, particularly in cases of use of pharmacological drugs (medical abortion). Women should be enabled to use medical abortion in more private settings while having access to health service providers in cases of complications in line with the WHO guidelines.
The issue of post abortion care, where many abuses occur due to punitive legal frameworks that stigmatize abortion is another disturbing reality. Too many women are physically and verbally mistreated or out rightly denied emergency medical care, in violation of international law and, in many instances, national laws and policies, simply because they have had abortions. Governments have the duty to ensure that women and girls who have abortion are treated humanely and without judgment and assumptions of violating laws.
The singling out of abortion, as a medical procedure, for criminalizationhas contributed to its stigmatization and women being targeted for it. The idea that abortion is blameworthy is a cultural construction. The fact is that it should be a safe medical procedure that women and girls should have access to when they need it. Any woman seeking post abortion care should receive it in a timely and non-judgmental manner and without risk of criminal investigation and prosecution. Concerns about unsafe abortion must be addressed through public health, relevant medical malpractice and civil laws. Denying women access to services, which only they require, and failing to address their specific reproductive health needs, is inherently discriminatory. Gender-based discrimination in the administration of medical services violates women’s human rights and dignity.
Countries should demonstrate their commitment towards eliminating discrimination against women in their legislation and to advance women’s and adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, in accordance with international human rights standards. It was well established in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and upheld in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that international human rights are conferred to those who have been born. But some propagate a dangerous rhetoric that the rights of a pregnant woman and fetal interests must be equally protected. However, there is no such assertion in international human rights law.
Unsafe abortion is among the leading causes of death for pregnant women. Restrictive abortion laws endanger lives of women and imposes hardship on them, therefore the claim often made by opponents of abortion that their stance is "pro-life" is misleading. It is known that in countries where termination of pregnancy is restricted by law and/or otherwise unavailable, safe termination of pregnancy is a privilege of the rich, while women with limited resources have little choice but to resort to unsafe providers and practices. WHO data has clearly demonstrated that criminalising termination of pregnancy does not reduce the number of women who resort to abortion procedures. Rather, it is likely to increase the number of women seeking clandestine and unsafe procedures. Countries where women have the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and are provided with access to information and to all methods of contraception have the lowest rates of abortion.
The experts urge the international community to move forward on gender equality, including on guaranteeing access to safe and legal abortion, and to guard against any roll-back. They commend the efforts worldwide of women human rights defenders, who struggle every day, resisting discriminatory legacies supported by religious and cultural norms that embody harmful stereotypes of women’s roles in the family and society and are inherently discriminatory and oppressive to women. No law should be misused as a means to control or curtail women's decision-making about the need for abortion, or access to it, and to punish women for that. Open spaces for evidence- and human rights-based discussions about the urgent need for progressive abortion law reform should be encouraged. Abortion should be decriminalised, “and women should be given more support and autonomy to undergo the procedure. Most abortion laws are being used to target women and this has to stop: women’s reproductive capacity should not be used against them.
NOTE TO EDITORS: An estimated 225 million women worldwide are deprived of access to essential modern contraception, often leading to unplanned pregnancies. For girls, pregnancy and childbirth is one of the most common causes of death in developing countries, with girls under 15 years of age facing five times the danger. As a result of unsafe abortions, each year some 47,000 women die, and a further 5 million suffer temporary or permanent disability. Maternal mortality violates the rights to life, health, equality and non-discrimination. In the framework of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, States committed to reduce greatly the number of deaths and morbidity from unsafe abortion.
*The experts: Ivana Radačić, Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice; Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
For further information, please refer to the following documents: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
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Jeremy Laurence – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / email@example.com) lend our voice very strongly to the demand for decriminalization as a transformative goal and take this opportunity to highlight the much neglected issue of post-abortion care.