RH Reality Check: International Human Rights Court Says Governments Must Ensure Timely Access to Maternal Health Services

By Jodi Jacobson

"In 2002, Alyne da Silva Pimentel, a 28-year-old Afro-Brazilian woman, died after being denied basic medical care to address complications in her pregnancy. Her death might be like any one of the other hundreds of thousands of women who die of complications of pregnancy or unsafe abortion each year worldwide, but for one thing: It was taken to court.

Maternal mortality in Brazil is high, especially for a country of its relative wealth and level of development. It is even higher among women who, like Alyne, are of Afro-descent, indigenous, and/or low-income.

On November 30, 2007, the Center for Reproductive Rights, with Brazilian partner Advocaci, filed Alyne da Silva Pimentel v. Brazil, brought the first ever maternal mortality case before the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Center's petition argued that Brazil's government violated Alyne's rights to life, health, and legal redress, all of which are guaranteed both by Brazil's constitution and international human rights treaties, including CEDAW.

'Alyne's story epitomizes Brazil's violation of women's human rights and failure to prevent women from dying of causes that, by the government's own admission, are avoidable," said Lilian Sepúlveda, the Center's Legal Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. 'We filed this case to demand that Brazil make the necessary reforms to its public health system—and save thousands of women's lives.'

This week, the case was decided in a historic decision by CEDAW, establishing that governments have a human rights obligation to guarantee that all women in their countries—regardless of income or racial background—have access to timely, non-discriminatory, and appropriate maternal health services."

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