Reproductive Rights Violations—Torture By Any Other Name

A woman living with HIV in Chile is forcibly sterilized while unconscious and undergoing a cesarean delivery.

A Kenyan woman, along with her newborn child, is detained for weeks by hospital staff in miserable conditions. Her crime is poverty; she has no money to pay her medical bill.

In Peru, a young girl lives in a tragically diminished physical capacity because doctors valued her pregnancy—which resulted from rape—more than they did her life and health.

This kind of treatment, and its consequences, is horrifying and unconscionable. For too long, such acts have not been treated with the gravity they deserve. But the Center for Reproductive Rights is leading the movement in asserting that such egregious abuses amount to nothing less than torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. And we demand that it stop today.

International human rights bodies have clearly defined torture. It's the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering—physical or mental—with the specific purpose of obtaining information, intimidating, punishing, or discriminating. And someone, or some entity, acting in an official capacity must be involved, have instigated it, or acquiesced to the treatment.

The threshold for cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, as distinguished from torture, can be crossed even more readily. The abusive treatment need not be intentional—negligence, with or without a specific purpose, is enough. And an act can be degrading simply because of the humiliation it causes.

Why do these definitions, these standards, matter in the fight to stop violations of reproductive rights? Because torture and ill treatment are universally condemned as grave offenses in violation of international law. All countries, whether bound by official treaty or not, are held to a global understanding that torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are wrong and prohibited.

But the common perception of these offenses is narrower than their actual reach. Torture and ill treatment are not confined to prisons and theaters of war. The Center for Reproductive Rights has just released the video "Sanctioned Cruelty: Reproductive Rights Violations as Torture" which identifies a far more common setting in which women find themselves subject to the mistreatment and discriminatory whims of government officials, where they suffer severe physical and/or mental pain simply because of who they are. These places? Hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices.

The Center, in partnership with the Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care, documented these stories to illustrate the severity of the harm inflicted by certain reproductive rights violations. These violations of fundamental human rights, because of their tragic consequences, and the circumstances and conditions under which they are committed, absolutely rise to the level of torture and ill treatment.

Calling these atrocities by a different name won't help a girl walk again, allow a woman to build the family she'd dreamed of, or restore the dignity of a mother wrongly detained, but our urgent efforts will signal to the world the gravity of these kinds of crimes against women. And that like all forms of torture and cruelty, they cannot be tolerated.