Human Rights Committee to Bolivia: Stop arresting women for abortion

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ipas welcomes recent recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Committee calling on Bolivia to cease prosecuting women for illegal abortions and to remove judicial barriers to legal abortion. The Human Rights Committee monitors compliance with the Convention on Civil and Political Rights; and signatory countries must present regular progress reports to the committee (usually every four years).

Ipas Senior Policy Advisor Gillian Kane noted the significance of the recommendations: “It is encouraging to read that the Committee shares the concerns of human rights activists that Bolivia is denying women access to their full range of rights protected by the Bolivian constitution.” She continued, “It is commendable that the Human Rights Committee continues to recognize and call for the remedy of human rights violations that take place when a country denies women and girls access to abortion under the law. I hope that the Bolivian government will act on these recommendations and improve women’s health and rights.” 

Bolivia’s strict abortion law allows exceptions in cases of rape or threats to health or life of a woman. In order to get a legal abortion, however, women must first get authorization from a judge. A 2012 Ipas study shows that such authorization is routinely denied and women having no other recourse turn to unsafe and illegal abortions. The study also shows that in general women who have had illegal abortions and are poor, young, rural or indigenous are selectively targeted by the state for prosecution.

Ipas sent a shadow letter to the committee, calling attention to the human rights violations that take place when Bolivia’s abortion law is enforced. From Ipas’s letter:

“Judicial authorization is required for legal abortion but is nearly always denied. The denial of legal abortion means that women must obtain needed abortions through illegal and unsafe channels. As a result women are reported to law enforcement authorities by doctors, relatives, partners or public prosecutors, are detained or arrested, all in violation of in violation of Bolivian women’s right to effective remedy (Art. 2), to life (Art. 6), liberty and security (Art. 9), right to a fair trial (Art. 14), and the right to privacy (Art. 17). Unsafe abortions also contribute to high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity in the country. It should be noted that the denial of services because of the unwillingness of judges to authorize them is discriminatory; it disproportionately affects indigenous, poor and young women.”

The Ipas research shows that from 2008-2012, 775 Bolivian women were investigated for illegal abortions, and an overwhelming proportion of those investigated were poor and indigenous. They were most often reported to the police by the health-care provider who attended them after arriving at a hospital for care from complication of unsafe abortions. Cases can languish in the courts for months at a time without a trial or even a criminal charge, leaving the accused in legal limbo.

In its recommendations to Bolivia, the Committee wrote:

“The Committee is concerned about the need for prior judicial authorization for cases of therapeutic abortion and abortion for rape, statutory rape or incest, as well as reports that only six legal abortions have been authorized by the State. The Committee is also concerned at reports that show a high percentage of maternal mortality due to unsafe abortions, and an alarming number of procedural investigations against women suspected of having an abortion.” Bolivia has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the region, and unsafe abortion accounts for nearly one-third maternal deaths.

The Committee recommended that Bolivia: “Remove the judicial authorization required for cases of therapeutic abortion following a rape, statutory rape or incest, in order to ensure effective access to safe and legal abortion in such cases provided by law; [and] refrain from prosecuting women for having had illegal abortions as a result of the obstacles arising from the requirement of prior judicial authorization.”

Bolivian lawmaker Deputy Patricia Mancilla of the ruling MAS party has filed a constitutional challenge to the abortion law, along with a number of other laws restricting women’s rights that are not in line with the 2009 constitution. It is unclear what effect the Committee’s recommendations will have on that case; a decision is expected early in 2014.