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United States: Abortion bans put millions of women and girls at risk, UN experts say

02 June 2023

GENEVA (2 June 2023) – Millions of women and girls across the United States have suffered an alarming deterioration in access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, following the US Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion in June 2022, UN experts* said today.

As of January 2023, abortion has been banned in 14 States across the country, and the consequences of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation has reverberated throughout the entire legal and policy system, the experts said.

“The regressive position taken by the US Supreme Court in June 2022, by essentially dismantling 50 years of precedent protecting the right to abortion in the country, puts millions of women and girls at serious risk,” they said. The experts also pointed to violations of International Human Rights Law, as a result of the judgement.

Abortion bans in 14 States have made abortion services largely inaccessible and denied women and girls their fundamental human rights to comprehensive healthcare including sexual and reproductive health. The experts said the bans could lead to violations of women’s rights to privacy, bodily integrity and autonomy, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, equality and non-discrimination, and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and gender-based violence.

“Women and girls in disadvantaged situations are disproportionately affected by these bans,” the experts said. They referred to women and girls from marginalised communities, racial and ethnic minorities, migrants, women and girls with disabilities, or living on low incomes, in abusive relationships or in rural areas.

The experts noted that existing exceptions, although narrow, have proved unworkable in practice. “The conditions of the exceptions often do not reflect medical diagnosis and sometimes exclude health-threatening conditions,” they said: “Even in cases where physicians determine that the abortion can go ahead, they may still find it difficult to assemble a full team given the reluctance of other health professionals.”

They warned that the Supreme Court decision also had a chilling effect on doctors and healthcare workers who may face legal consequences for their care decisions, including those regarding medically necessary or life-saving abortions or the removal of foetal tissue from women with incomplete miscarriages.

“We are particularly alarmed by the increasing reports of threats to the lives of abortion service providers across the country,” the experts said.

The threat of criminalisation in many States has discouraged women and girls from engaging with the health system and seeking prenatal care the experts said. “It is particularly alarming that some clinics are now refraining from providing abortion-related services, even in States where it remains legal,” they said.

According to the experts, these abortion bans in many US States have been accompanied by a steady and rapid erosion of the right to privacy, as law enforcement officials increasingly rely on electronic data to track those seeking abortions or those who aid and abet them. Much of this data can be accessed without a warrant, they said.

“We urge both the federal and state Governments to take action to reverse the regressive rhetoric seeping through the legislative system and enact positive measures to ensure access to safe and legal abortion,” the experts said.

*The experts: Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences; Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Chair), Ivana Radačić (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Meskerem Geset Techane and Melissa Upreti, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Ana Brian Nougrères, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy; Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities;

Ashwini K.P., Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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