Report: Abortion Laws Driven by Animus and Not Science

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | May 9, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. May 10 (C-Fam) A recent international analysis examining the “legal determinants of health” took aim at legal restrictions on abortion, framing such restrictions as harmful to public health. The report further argued such restrictions may violate human rights.

Published in The Lancet last month, in collaboration with Georgetown University Law Center, the analysis was framed as a way to inform the global health community how law can help—or hinder—public health, and drive progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Much of the 54-page document focused on noncontroversial recommendations such as using law to promote safety standards for driving, workplace safety, and the evaluation and testing of drugs. The commission stressed the importance of using the latest scientific evidence to inform health-related lawmaking, followed by further study to gauge its impact over time.

In contrast, the authors took a dim view of laws “enacted to promote a moral norm,” particularly when they involved criminal penalties.  “Punitive laws can…restrict reproductive rights,” they write, describing such laws as “driven by animus or unsupported by scientific evidence.”

The authors imply that “safe contraception and abortion” are an integral, albeit “threatened” component of health care and express regret that countries persist in criminalizing abortion “despite WHO [World Health Organization] guidance.”  They also criticize laws against prostitution.

The commission offers the Zika outbreak in Latin America as an example of how laws that “restrict reproductive rights” can “undermine public health messages.”  Because some women became pregnant, despite WHO recommendations that they delay doing so for up to several years, exposure to the Zika virus meant their babies were at risk of microcephaly.  Therefore, the commission’s authors imply, restrictions on abortion undermined public health by increasing the likelihood that these babies would be born.

The authors assert, “the universal right to health is a core standard against which legal interventions should be assessed.”  But not all countries take that view; the United States has notably not ratified any binding instrument that includes such a right.  Elsewhere in the commission, the authors acknowledge that “many countries” admit such obligations.

At a launch event for the commission held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a panelist acknowledged that most countries with older constitutions, including the Nordic countries—“world leaders in health”—do not include a right to health.  To the extent that an internationally agreed standard exists, it explicitly leaves the legal status of abortion to national governments to determine.  And when the WHO issues guidance documents urging countries to liberalize their abortion laws or weaken conscience protections for health workers, they have no mechanism to force compliance.

Much of the commission focuses on pragmatic approaches to improving public health using the law, such as taxes on tobacco and alcohol, efforts to improve messaging around diet and exercise, and modifying traffic laws to reduce injuries.  On controversial moral issues such as abortion and prostitution, however, the moral norms that prompted laws against them are deemed arbitrary and outdated.  The opposing moral standard set forth by many experts in UN human rights bodies is accepted without question, including the unstated assertion that health only begins at birth.