Last month, on September 28, women’s rights activists throughout Latin America undertook actions marking the Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion. The protests and policy proposals were the latest steps in several decades of organizing.
Paralleled by the actions of reproductive and sexual rights activists worldwide, the organizing serves as a prelude to discussions that will take place in the United Nations today.
Today, in the halls of the General Assembly, Anand Grover, UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Health will present his report on criminal laws and other legal restrictions relating to sexual health, reproductive health and the right to health.
The report calls for decriminalization of and the removal of legal barriers related to four specific things: abortion, conduct during pregnancy, contraception & family planning and provision of sexual and reproductive health education and information.
Researching barriers to women’s health, Grover found that women have been prosecuted and jailed for such things as asking for information about contraception, failing to refrain from sexual intercourse, consuming alcohol during pregnancy, miscarrying fetuses, transmitting HIV perinatally and seeking abortions.
Using bold and unprecedented language, Grover called for immediate, non-graduated removal of these legal barriers and stated that resource constraints cannot be an excuse to propagate rights-violating laws, policies and practices.
The report finds that such criminalization is discriminatory, generates and perpetuates stigma, distorts perceptions amongst health care providers (which in turn hinders access) and violates the right to health by restricting access to necessary goods, services and information.
Also, criminalization doesn’t achieve the public health outcomes that proponents of it purport. Instead, criminalization and legal barriers result in preventable deaths, morbidity and ill health and thrust women into the criminal justice system. Moreover, women are robbed of their dignity and prevented from asserting their decision-making capacity and autonomy- and fully participating in society.
Feminists are heralding the report’s findings and recommendations for clearly stating links that women’s rights activists and health practitioners have understood for years – namely, that it is a combination of adequate resources; access to a full, integrated range of reproductive and sexual health services; removal of legal barriers; and intentional commitments by governments to upholding and ensuring rights that actually translates into positive health outcomes.
Women’s rights advocates worldwide also welcomed the report as progressive step towards holding governments accountable for human rights agreements and international commitments, such as CEDAW, the ICPD Program of Action and the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. CEDAW has already been ratified, and governments have endorsed the other international agreements, but all are routinely violated.
Among those violating rights include religious and other kinds of fundamentalists, say many feminists. 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 – including fundamentalists – who manipulate arguments of religion, tradition and culture to create and reinforce negative stereotypes about women.
These actors use law and other means including misinformation, shaming, confinement and violence to restrict women’s mobility, decision-making, autonomy and expression.
Naming these actors – and their activities – is critical to enabling change.
Indeed, Special Rapporteurs can play a significant role and have a decisive impact in advancing rights. For instance, the former Rapporteur on Health, Paul Hunt, pushed for UN Human Rights Council recognition of maternal mortality as a human rights issue.
Following the UN General Assembly hearings today, states can make declarations supporting the findings and declaring steps they will take to implement recommendations.
While reports such as this one 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.
The Rapporteur is taking unprecedented steps and now governments and civil society must (continue to) do their part to fully protect, respect and realize women’s sexual rights and reproductive rights.