Access to safe, legal, and accessible abortion is essential to realize women’s and girls’ right to life, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s recent “General Comment on the Right to Life.”
The Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts charged with monitoring countries’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, periodically issues general comments outlining the obligations of governments under specific articles of the Covenant. The comments also provide specific guidance on implementation to the 172 state parties to the treaty, including the United States, which has recently turned toward aggressively restricting women’s reproductive rights in its domestic, foreign, and UN policies.
While the Committee has addressed the obligation of governments to fulfill women and girls’ right to access safe abortion frequently in recommendations to individual member states, this is only the second time it has addressed it in a general comment. Crucially, the Committee notes that restrictions on abortion violate women’s and girls’ human rights not only when their life or physical health is at risk due to pregnancy, but also if the restrictions cause undue harm to their mental health, cause pain or suffering, result in discrimination, infringe on their privacy, or violate other human rights. The General Comment is one of a growing number of statements from UN human rights bodies that call on member states to protect women and girls’ right to safe, legal, and accessible abortion. A joint statement issued by the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Commission on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) in August 2018 states that safe, legal abortion is “a prerequisite for safeguarding their human rights to life, health, equality before the law and equal protection of the law, non-discrimination, information, privacy, bodily integrity and freedom from torture and ill treatment.” It further calls on member states to decriminalize abortion in all circumstances and legalize it in a way that respects women’s autonomy. Comparatively, the General Comment stops short, compelling governments make safe abortion available, at a minimum, in cases where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if the fetus is not viable.
Nevertheless, the General Comment recognizes that restrictions on abortion result in higher rates of clandestine, unsafe abortions, and place women and girls’ health at risk. As a result, it elaborates extensively on the significance of safe access to abortion, and calls on states to revise and review laws and policies that may cause women to seek unsafe abortions. The Committee explicitly calls for the reform of laws that criminalize women who undergo abortions, medical providers that assist them in doing so, and pregnancy outside of marriage, because they compel women to seek clandestine services.
For too long, onerous restrictions and subjective morality have stood in the way of access to reproductive health care. For example, more than 70 jurisdictions allow health providers to refuse care based on conscience claims and many more allow other barriers to safe abortion services. These barriers negate the hard-fought right to abortion and other reproductive health care services. Recognizing this, the Committee urges states to remove barriers to safe abortion, and not impose new ones, most notably those that allow health care providers to refuse to provide abortion care based on their own personal beliefs. It also emphasizes that states should prevent the stigmatization of women and girls seeking abortion, and to provide confidential, quality prenatal and post abortion care to all women and girls.
The General Comment is the culmination of a three-year process in which governments, civil society, and other key stakeholders submitted comments intended to further define and protect human rights. IWHC, in collaboration with other nongovernmental organizations, submitted a written contribution focused on the importance of decriminalizing abortion, achieving access to nondiscriminatory and comprehensive reproductive health services, and reducing barriers to care such as so-called “conscientious objection.”
In the face of ongoing assaults on women’s access to basic health services, the Committee’s leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights is needed. By calling for the decriminalization of abortion and the removal of barriers that restrict access to care, the Human Rights Committee makes it clear that the right to access safe, legal abortion services is fundamental for achieving women’s human rights.
Photo: Charlotte Cooper