The United Nations General Assembly has heard a report presented by Anand Grover, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, which exposes the adverse effects of criminalisation and legal restrictions on reproductive health matters. Anand’s report is an important milestone for those working to promote sexual and reproductive health and human rights worldwide. The report states:
“Realization of the right to health requires the removal of barriers that interfere with individual decision-making on health-related issues and with access to health services, education and information, in particular on health conditions that only affect women and girls.”
The report calls for decriminalisation of and the removal of legal barriers in four specific areas: abortion, conduct during pregnancy, contraception and family planning and provision of sexual and reproductive health education and information.
Women’s rights advocates worldwide welcomed the report as progressive step towards holding governments accountable for existing human rights agreements and international commitments, such as CEDAW, the ICPD Program of Action and the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, all of which are routinely violated.
Among those violating rights are religious and other fundamentalists, say many advocates. While the report acknowledges that public morality cannot be used as a justification to impose laws that violate rights, it does not name those actors who manipulate arguments of religion, tradition and culture to create and reinforce negative stereotypes about women.
For instance, in a hospital in Nicaragua, after a total ban on abortion was passed, a woman with an ectopic pregnancy was allowed to languish, waiting for her fallopian tube to rupture before a doctor agreed to perform the procedure necessary to save her life and future fertility.
Even though there was no doubt regarding the outcome of her pregnancy, the doctor refused to operate until the foetus was certifiably dead, and with no ultrasound available in that rural hospital, there was only one way to make sure.
This is not an isolated incident, but follows the trend set by doctors in Argentina and Brazil in 2007. A judge in Brazil prosecuted 1,500 women for procuring abortions. In that same year, a cancer patient in Argentina, Ana Maria Acevedo, went untreated and died because she was pregnant and doctors refused to treat her cancer.
In Indonesia anti-pornography laws are being used to restrict and criminalize information provided by reproductive health and sex education organisations and activists; workers are at risk of being jailed for providing research-based information. One activist told Amnesty International:
“If people feel uncomfortable and think I am promoting sex, this can be a problem… it always depends on community leaders… if they are very fundamentalist then there is a high chance [we will be arrested].”
While reports such as this are not binding, they are still significant and important tools. For example, language from reports can be used in legal arguments and report recommendations can inform national and local legal and policy precedents.
Meanwhile, civil society organizations can use the frameworks to formulate public policy suggestions, shame violators and hold governments accountable. Legislation in the United States, such as H.R. 358 the so called “Protect Life Act” or, more accurately, Let Women Die Act, which would deny pregnant women access to emergency treatment, insurance coverage for abortion services and even information about how she could pay for an abortion could be challenged using this recommendation to the UN. It could also provide legal protection for women around the world, because the report frames the criminalisation of abortion and the restriction of access to sexual health education as an abuse of state power, placing the blame firmly with governments.