Abortion Rights Are Human Rights, Part One

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the reproductive health and justice movement as an international feminist and human rights struggle. There are a myriad of connections and lessons. We can all learn from each other.

The public health statistics of abortion restriction and illegal abortion in the world are grim. But we can use these numbers—which represent real flesh-and-blood women—to inspire us to make changes.

Currently, more than 61% of the world's people live in countries where induced abortion is permitted for a wide range of reasons. In contrast, 26%—more than ¼—of all people reside in the 72 countries where abortion is prohibited, and where women are stigmatized, treated as criminals, often prosecuted, and thrown in jail. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 80 million women worldwide have unintended or unwanted pregnancies each year, and 46 million of these end in abortion. Almost half of these 46 million abortions—twenty million—are unsafe; this means that eight women die every hour because of the horrific complications that occur. That further translates to 68,000 women a year who die due to unsafe, illegal abortions, and 85% of such deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Central Asia. Nearly 75% of the world-wide 500,000 pregnancy-related deaths annually occur because of unsafe abortion and unsafe childbirth practices that could be prevented.

The basis for the international legal support that has begun to interpret a woman's right to safe and legal abortion as a universal human right can be found in numerous international treaties (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), various human rights commissions (such as the European Commission on Human Rights), and in conference documents from the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development of 1994 in Cairo, Egypt and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. A year before that, the 2004 United Nations World Health Assembly had adopted the first global strategy designed to demand government responsibility and accountability on a broad spectrum of reproductive rights issues and based their strategy on a human rights framework.

So just what is that framework?

The denial of a pregnant woman's right to make an independent and non-coerced decision regarding abortion violates a wide range of human rights. Women's reproductive rights under international human rights law are a composite of a number of separate human rights:

  1. the right to health, reproductive health, and family planning
  2. the right to decide the number and spacing of children
  3. the right to marry and found a family
  4. the right to life, liberty, and security
  5. the right to be free from gender discrimination
  6. the right to be free from sexual assault and exploitation
  7. the right to not be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
  8. the right to modify customs that discriminate against women
  9. the right to privacy
  10. the right to enjoy scientific progress and to consent to experimentation

In my next post, I will explore in more detail how four of these human rights specifically apply to safe and legal abortion.

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  • anne-marie-rey

    I think denial of a pregnant woman's right to make an independent and non-coerced decision regarding abortion violates still another fundamental human right: The right not to be held in slavery or compulsory labour (art. 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights) There is no coerced motherhood without compulsory labour…

  • marcy-bloom

    Thank you very much for your comments, Anne Marie. There is no question that the fear, desperation, and, ulimately, the oppression and harm experienced by many women when confronted with an unwanted pregancy and lack of safe options can indeed be viewed as a form of slavery and compulsory labor when motherhoood is imposed. This form of discrimination is unique to women's lives and health and blatant sexism, of course, is why it has not yet been prioritized in the interpretation of human rights laws and declarations. But dynamic progress is happening in this arena and I am hopeful about future changes and advances for women's human rights. I appreciate your insights.