UN Human Rights Experts Continue to Lobby for Abortion

By | August 22, 2019

Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women

WASHINGTON, D.C. August 23 (C-Fam) According to a UN expert, countries must decriminalize abortion as part of their efforts to eliminate violence against women in obstetric settings, and, “at the very minimum,” legalize it in certain exceptional cases.

The UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on preventing violence against women, Dubravka Šimonović of Croatia, submitted a report to the Secretary-General.  Its theme was mistreatment of women during childbirth and in health care settings.  The Secretary-General then transmitted it to the General Assembly in advance of their fall session.

Šimonović detailed abuses such as the physical restraint of women giving birth, overuse of caesarean sections for the convenience of doctors, and failures to ensure that women are able to give informed consent to procedures.  She also characterized forced abortion and sterilization as forms of violence, particularly targeted at women who are poor, disabled, or belong to minority ethnic groups.

Alongside these issues, Šimonović characterized “women being forced to carry almost every pregnancy to full term” as an additional form of violence, citing the views of the expert body monitoring compliance with the UN treaty on the elimination of discrimination against women (CEDAW).  These views are not binding on UN member States, and the treaty text does not include any right to abortion.

While acknowledging that some countries have made progress in improving maternal health, it “has not necessarily been accompanied by progress in other areas of women’s sexual and reproductive rights,” writes Šimonović.  “Access to safe abortion and other reproductive health services remains a challenge.”

The presumption of a right to abortion under any circumstances is not supported by any binding international law, and global consensus is that laws about abortion are to be determined by individual countries.  Nevertheless, UN human rights experts have spent decades quoting each other in asserting that there is—at least in some circumstances—a right to abortion.

Last September, Šimonović joined with other UN experts to issue a statement on what activists have dubbed “International Safe Abortion Day.”  They argued that access to “safe,” legal abortion is necessary for women’s “equality, privacy and physical and mental health,” which are “preconditions for the enjoyment of other rights and freedoms.”

Special rapporteurs like Šimonović are considered independent in the sense that they do not receive a salary from the UN for their work, and do not represent the position of their home country.  However, they do receive logistical and personnel support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  There are special rapporteurs associated with 44 thematic mandates overseen by the Human Rights Council.

The potential impact of this report remains to be determined.  It could be cited by UN agencies to inform their work, or referenced in future resolutions of the General Assembly, which could in turn lend credence to its assertions.  Ultimately, it injects controversy into the area of maternal health and obstetric care, issues on which a great deal of global consensus and momentum exists, by overreaching into areas rightly left to domestic law.