UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women & Girls

Statement: All states must ensure access to safe and legal abortion as a matter of human rights, say UN experts

As an essential reproductive healthcare service for women and girls, access to safe and legal abortion is critical to ensure their fundamental right to autonomy, equality and to physical and mental health, UN human rights experts* said.

On the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day, the experts issue the following statement:

“Denial of access to safe and legal abortion drives service provision underground into the hands of unqualified practitioners, and exacerbates the risks to the health and safety of the affected women, in the form of pregnancy-related injuries and death. It is estimated that 25 million unsafe abortions take place every year, causing the preventable deaths of about 22,000 women, almost all in developing countries. Additionally, an estimated seven million women and girls experience injuries resulting in impairment and infertility. In contrast, countries where women have the effective right to abortion on request, supported by affordable and effective family planning measures, have the lowest abortion rates.

“In too many States abortion is still criminalised, or not accessible in practice, even where it is legal. Some women face incarceration for the decision to terminate a pregnancy, even when their own health is at risk. Some are incarcerated in cases of miscarriage. According to international human rights standards, States have an obligation to refrain from the use of criminal law to punish women for ending a pregnancy, as well as to repeal restrictive laws and policies which put women and girls’ health, safety and lives at risk. 

“States should guarantee access to legal, safe and affordable abortion and post-abortion care for all women and girls. Those living in poverty, in rural areas, with disabilities, as well as migrant and indigenous women and those belonging to ethnic minorities, continue to be the most affected by structural discrimination limiting their access to health care, including abortion services. Women and girls in situations of crisis, whether due to conflict, natural disasters or economic austerity measures, also face an increased risk of harm.

In this context, we welcome the adoption by the UN General Assembly of a landmark ‘Political Declaration on Universal Health Coverage’ on 23 September 2019, which restates the need to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services and reproductive rights.

In recent years, we have observed a positive trend in several parts of the world towards removing barriers to accessing legal and safe abortion, which we hope will be followed by other countries as well.

Constitutional bans were removed, criminal provisions were repealed by constitutional courts, laws were passed taking abortion out of criminal codes and regulating the service in health legislation and the right to safe abortion was reaffirmed by some national Courts as a constitutionally protected right. In others countries, women who had been detained and sentenced to long incarcerations after stillbirths or miscarriages were released.

However, there are also attempts, in various parts of the world, to restrict access to this essential health service for women. Politicised religious conservative movements are making a concerted effort to roll back the rights of women and girls by pushing for criminalization of the procedure, with harsh punishments for those seeking and providing abortions. In some countries, the introduction of legal restrictions on access to State funding for, and universal coverage of, sexual and reproductive services, affects women’s ability, in particular the poorest and most marginalised, to access abortion, with severe human rights consequences. These measures are regressive and perpetuate abortion stigma which is harmful to women and girls’ ability to make important decisions about their health.

Twenty-five years after the International Conference on Population and Development where governments committed to ending unsafe abortion worldwide, which was reconfirmed at the Fourth World Women’s Conference, we cannot go backwards. The devastating consequences on women’s and girls’ lives and health caused by unsafe abortions leave no space for retrogression. All States should acknowledge that abortion is part of health care and is a matter of human rights, integrally linked to women and girls’ dignity and rights to life, health, equality, and privacy.

* The experts: Meskerem Techane, Chair of the Working group on discrimination against women and girls; Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Dainius Pūras Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

SOURCE: OHCHR, 27 September 2019