UN WORKING GROUP ON DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS – Letter to the US Government from UN experts re abortion restrictions in eight states

The UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, have published a letter they sent to the US Government dated 22 May 2020, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 41/6, 42/16 and 41/17.

The letter opens: “… We would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government information we have received concerning restrictions taken in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic impeding access to abortion services. Similar attempts to restrict women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Texas and other states were already brought to your Government’s attention by the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls in the report on its visit to the United States (A/HRC/32/44/Add.2) and previous communications (USA 4/2015, OL USA 8/2017).

“According to the information received: Since March 2020, emergency orders have been issued to respond to the pandemic of Covid-19 throughout the country. In some states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, these orders have been interpreted to restrict access to essential abortion care. As a result, clinics were compelled to cancel the appointments of hundreds of patients, many of whom were already scheduled to undergo abortion procedures and did not have alternative options. Other patients have had to travel long distances to reach other states in order to access these services under great difficulties imposed by restrictions on people’s freedom of movement and increasing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus….”

The letter goes on to list in detail the restrictions placed by these states on access to abortion and on abortion clinics, which forced them to cancel scheduled abortions, with all the difficulties this created for women. They noted the extensive state- and federal- level court action that was required on the part of advocates for abortion rights and the clinics in order to challenge these restrictions and have them reversed. In every case, these restrictions were reversed because they were illegal, as they placed an undue burden on women seeking legal abortions, which is not allowed.

It says they: “believe that the situation in the United States concerning women’s access to essential reproductive health services has become increasingly difficult, in particular as a result of the regression and the arbitrariness in relation to the regulation of women’s access to legal abortion services. We regret that the above-mentioned states, with a long history of restrictive practices against abortion, seem to have been manipulating the crisis to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights.”

They commend: “…the legal actions taken by CSOs and some of the positive judicial decisions to ensure women’s access to abortion services in this time of crisis when women are having to grapple with new restrictions on their mobility, due to lockdowns and orders to shelter-in-place which have also caused disruptions in transportation services and are likely to significantly impede women’s access to health care services.

In addition, restrictions on essential health care services, such as abortion, undermine public health efforts to respond to COVID-19. Where bans on abortion are being implemented, women will be forced to travel out of state to obtain abortion services, thereby risking their own health and undermining public health guidelines to stay at home. Further, access to essential sexual and reproductive health services during a pandemic is crucial for preventing maternal morbidity and mortality….[continues].”

FULL STATEMENT: Mandates of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. Ref: AL USA 11/2020. 22 May 2020.

SEE ALSO: Center for Reproductive Rights statement, 8 September 2020