U.N. Special Rapporteur calls on governments to decriminalize abortion

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A new U.N. report calls on nations like Nicaragua to decrminalize abortion, noting that such restrictions violate women's right to health.

In a groundbreaking report presented at the United Nations on October 24, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health called on U.N. member states to eliminate laws that create barriers to sexual and reproductive health. Specifically, the report calls on governments to decriminalize abortion and to ensure access to legal health services and medically accurate health information.

Human rights, women’s rights and health organizations – including Ipas – welcomed the report as an important milestone in the effort to achieve the full realization of the right to health for all. “Ipas’s extensive research and experience with women and providers around the world support the conclusions and recommendations of this report,” said Barbara Crane, Executive Vice President of Ipas. It was also welcomed in statements by a number of U.N. Member States from both industrialized and developing countries.

At very nearly the same time that the Special Rapporteur addressed barriers to sexual and reproductive health care at the United Nations, members of civil society from Nicaragua (including Ipas) were testifying before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) on violations of human rights of women and girls in that country caused by sexual violence. The petitioners called for the hearing following the repeated failure of the government to act to protect women from sexual violence, or to provide appropriate treatment to survivors of such violence.

“Girls and women are defenseless against a system that does not guarantee their rights,” said Ipas’s Mayte Ochoa at the hearing. 

Included in the list of concerns brought before the IACHR was the total ban on abortion in Nicaragua, which prevents women who have been raped the right to terminate a resulting pregnancy. Nicaragua is one of only four countries that have total bans on abortion. In his report, the Special Rapporteur specifically addressed the issue of rape, recognizing that being forced to choose between carrying an unwanted pregnancy or an illegal abortion “can cause enormous anguish.”

The report stated, “Moreover, while the psychological impact of seeking an illegal abortion or carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is well documented, no corresponding evidence supports the existence of long-term mental health sequelae resulting from elective abortion.”

Throughout the report, the Special Rapporteur also recognized that the stigma surrounding abortion, reinforced by restrictive laws, served to “…perpetuate and intensify violations of the right to health,” preventing women from seeking timely and appropriate health care. Ipas has been studying the impact that stigma has on women’s ability to access safe abortion care, and it was the topic of the latest issue of the magazine Because. 

In his conclusion, the Special Rapporteur called on States to remove legal barriers to sexual and reproductive health care, including decriminalizing abortion, and to take steps to ensure the availability and accessibility of reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion.