UN Special Rapporteur recommends repeal of criminal abortion laws

Thursday, June 22, 2017

UN Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard

In her first report as UN Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard recommends the repeal of all criminal abortion laws. Her message is clear: When women die from unsafe abortion, governments may be responsible for arbitrary killing.

Callamard is Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Her report, says Patty Skuster, Ipas senior legal advisor, “strengthens the links between violations of the right to life and unsafe abortion and is an additional tool for advocates who influence national legislatures, courts, and global policy makers.”

The report, which drew on input from Ipas, was submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission in May. It shows that violations of the right to life stem not only from intentional deprivation of life by a state or a non-state actor, but also from the deprivation of basic conditions that guarantee life, such as access to essential health care.

Callamard writes that states have “extensive knowledge of the life-threatening implications of unsafe abortion practices and the consequential number of deaths resulting from this recourse.” Laws that expand access to abortion, she says, do not increase the number of abortions but rather result in fewer deaths. Previous international treaties and documents have linked women’s and girls’ deaths from unsafe abortion to the right to life, and many countries have been condemned for criminalizing and restricting access to abortion.

The report notes that restrictive abortion laws not only violate the right to life but amount to torture. Yet, it says, “some States choose to impose an absolute ban on abortion and criminalise it. …The death of a woman, where it can be medically linked to a deliberate denial of access to life-saving medical care because of an absolute legal ban on abortion, would not only constitute a violation of the right to life and an arbitrary deprivation of life. It would also amount to a gender-based arbitrary killing, only suffered by women, as a result of discrimination enshrined in law,” the report states.

Callamard concludes that abortion restrictions impose a “significant chilling” effect on doctors and women that pushes women toward unsafe abortion resulting in serious injury or death. “Depending on the individual circumstances of each case, one may be able to conclude that these deaths constitute an arbitrary deprivation of life,” she writes.

Included among the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations are that states:

  • Repeal laws criminalizing abortion;
  • Ensure that women do not have to undertake life-threatening clandestine abortions;
  • Adopt clear regulations and guidelines on safe and legal abortion for health professionals providing abortion and postabortion services.