On Monday October 24, 2011 the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health will present 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 existence.
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 policies.
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.