A group of United Nations human rights experts have called on States to repeal restrictive abortion laws and policies; dismantle discriminatory barriers to access to safe reproductive health services; decriminalise abortion; and provide reproductive health services in a legal, safe and affordable manner. The experts also expressed their support for the call to make 28 September an official UN day for safe abortion worldwide.
The criminalisation of abortion and the failure to provide adequate access to safe termination options are forms of discrimination based on sex. Restrictive legislation that denies access to safe abortion is one of most damaging ways of instrumentalising women’s bodies and a grave violation of women’s human rights. Restrictive laws apply to 40% of the world’s population. In countries prohibiting abortion, women who seek health services — whether in order to carry out a termination or to seek medical care after a miscarriage — may be subjected to prosecution and imprisonment. Prohibition does not reduce the need and the number of abortions; it merely increases the risks to the health and lives of women and girls who resort to unsafe and illegal services.
The consequences are severe. Unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity. According to the World Health Organization, about 22 million unsafe abortions take place each year, worldwide, and an estimated 47,000 women die annually from complications resulting from the resort to unsafe practices.
Evidence-based comprehensive sex education and the availability of effective contraception are essential to lower the incidence of unintended pregnancy, and hence the number of abortions. Indeed, countries with the lowest levels of abortion are those in which information and modern methods of contraception are easily available and where abortion is legal. Unwanted pregnancies cannot be totally prevented since no contraceptive method is 100% effective, and women may be exposed to sexual violence. Thus, the ability to access safe abortion remains essential.
The experts recommend the good practice found in many countries, where women have access to safe abortion services on request during the first trimester. International legal requirements should mandate that women can access abortion, at the very least, in cases of risk to their life or health, including mental health, rape, incest and fatal impairment of the foetus during the first trimester and later. States should also allow pregnant girls and adolescents to terminate unwanted pregnancies, which if carried to term expose them to a greatly increased risk to life and health, including a very high probability of suffering from obstetric fistula, preventing the completion of their education and obstructing the development of their economic and social capabilities.
States are urged to repeal restrictive laws and policies that do not meet the requirements of international human rights law and that have discriminatory public health impacts, and to eliminate all punitive measures and discriminatory barriers to access safe reproductive health services. These laws and policies violate women’s human rights to health and negate their autonomy in decision-making about their own bodies. We cannot tolerate the severe violation of women’s human rights on the basis of their sex and biological differences. We cannot tolerate the high incidence of women’s and girls’ preventable deaths resulting from maternity-related issues, including from unsafe abortion.
In the past 30 years, women’s rights groups have mobilized on 28 September, named ‘the Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion’, to urge their Governments to decriminalise the termination of pregnancy, end the stigma and discrimination around the practice and provide such services in a legal, safe and affordable manner. Originally from Latin America and the Caribbean, 28 September, which commemorates the abolition of slavery for children born to slave mothers in Brazil, was renamed as the day of the ‘free womb’ and the movement spread to all the other regions in the world.
While slavery has now been abolished, there is still a long way to go before the bodies and wombs of women around the world will stop being instrumentalised in the name of patriarchal morals or traditions and for political, economic or cultural purposes.
Edited for publication by Seham Areff.
Submitted by Professor Frances Raday, who is a member of the OHCHR Expert Working Group on Discrimination against Women. She notifies that the statement issued by the UN Special Procedures experts reflects the recommendations made by the Working Group in its annual report to the Human Rights Council, June 2016 A/HRC/32/44.
This post may be cited as “UN Rights Experts Warn Against the Grave Threat of Unsafe Abortions,” (OxHRH Blog, 20 October 2016) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/un-rights-experts-warn-against-the-grave-threat-of-unsafe-abortions/> [Date of Access].