The UN Speaks Out: Women Must Have the Right to Health, the Right to Decide

Last week, the General Assembly of the United Nations heard a blunt, emphatic message: No longer should the world tolerate the tragic, avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of women forced to seek out unsafe, illegal abortions every year.

Taking a monumental step in affirming women’s reproductive rights, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health presented to the General Assembly a groundbreaking report.

It states unequivocally—and echoes the core of the Center for Reproductive Rights’ mission—that decriminalizing abortion and removing legal barriers to the full range of reproductive services are central to protecting the lives and well-being of women worldwide.

“If you want to realize the right to health of any individual, that individual must be able to make her own decisions,” says Anand Grover, an independent expert who reports to the General Assembly in his official capacity as the Special Rapporteur. “And her decisions must not be impaired by external forces. She must be empowered.”

Grover’s report is unprecedented in that it tackles the issue of abortion head on—the first time a U.N. expert has made such a clear call for decriminalization in the General Assembly. Grover builds on the existing work by U.N. human rights bodies, which has consistently called for states to free women from abusive, unjust laws.

And—perhaps most important—Grover frames these issues as fundamental human rights.

 “It’s an enormous victory for all women and the organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights that work so tirelessly to defend their right to health,” says Louise Finer, who leads the Center’s work at the U.N. and in other international forums. “We’re very proud to be part of the strong and able coalition of advocates around the world that has made possible this evolving, and better informed, worldview.”

Specifically, the report asserts that women will not achieve equality, or fully possess their dignity or reproductive autonomy, without access to safe, legal abortion; to contraception and family-planning services; to objective information and education about sexual and reproductive matters; and the decriminalization of a woman’s conduct during her pregnancy. When states criminalize any of these activities, Grover says, “The impact of that is to dehumanize people.”

As true and undeniable as those words might sound, representatives from countries with the world’s most restrictive abortion laws have already condemned the Special Rapporteur’s report.  Given the overwhelming understanding within the human rights community that criminal and other restrictions on abortion are unacceptable—it’s difficult to understand how so many governments continue to resist taking these steps to protect women’s health.

But these anti-choice governments are in the minority. The report was well-received by most member nations, according to Grover, a strong indication that the global perspective on women’s rights continues to evolve and progress.

This report supports and raises the platform from which the Center for Reproductive Rights and our allies have launched our battles to fend off the anti-choice zealots who perpetuate the criminalization of abortion. And for the 25 percent of women worldwide who live in a country where abortion is either illegal or highly restricted, the report gives them renewed hope that health, equality, dignity, and full reproductive autonomy will one day be theirs.

Reproductive rights aren’t political or radical. They are fundamentally human, and a matter of life and death.

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