The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health [has] presented a report to the UN that unequivocally tells governments they must remove laws that criminalize abortion.
This is not the first time a branch of the UN has recommended reforming restrictive abortion
laws to protect women’s human rights but it will be the first time that
governments at the UN will be told loud and clear that these laws are
an abuse of State power and there are no excuses for their continued
This report has the potential to change the way we talk about abortion
at the UN, in our parliaments and in our health, human rights,
feminist, legal and development organizations because, finally, the
right questions are being asked in the UN human rights system. How are
criminal laws used as a tool of the State to infringe upon women and
girls’ autonomy, dignity, self-determination and decision-making?
How do laws and policies related to sexual and reproductive health
and rights perpetuate gender inequality and disempower women and girls?
Why are criminal laws applied to a health service when the evidence
plainly demonstrates only harmful consequences for doing so? What are
the impacts of the criminalization of abortion on women’s and girls’
human rights? By asking these questions, the Special Rapporteur succeeds
in shifting the focus away from women having to explaining why they
should be allowed to have abortions in particular circumstances, over to
its rightful place of scrutinizing governments for violating women’s
and girls’ human rights through the maintenance of these laws and
The Special Rapporteur analyzes the recommendations and evidence from
several different human rights bodies to answer these questions. He
logically concludes that laws and policies that criminalize and restrict
access to sexual and reproductive health
information, supplies and services, including abortion, are
unsupportable in international law and must be immediately eliminated.
This is not a new analysis for anyone affected by these criminal laws or for anyone working to improve access to abortion
care, however, coming from an independent expert mandated by the UN to
investigate human rights abuses, it provides an opportunity to change
the discourse on abortion in forums where policy and legal decisions are made.
In order to bring about this fundamental change in the way we
understand the function of abortion laws, advocates from health, human
rights, legal, development, equality and feminist organizations need to
work together to pool their expertise to demand accountability from
Governments on this issue. This can happen in national, regional and
international courts, parliaments, the UN human rights bodies, national
human rights institutions and any other venue that challenges the
exercise of Government control over its citizens.
The criminalization of abortion must be considered suspect and
antithetical to human rights as we now consider the death penalty or
torture to be but it will take our collective knowledge, experience,
energy and expertise to get to the stage where Governments are
consistently called to account for their role in violating women’s and
girls’ rights to health. So, start talking to your local women’s
organizations, human rights organizations, health care providers, public
representatives, public interest law firms and your Government’s
development agency and health and foreign affairs ministries about this
report and how you can use it to stop your Government from violating
women’s and girls’ rights.
Source: RH Reality Check, Meghan Doherty, 25 October 2011