UN Body Slams Abortion Laws

This month, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the Committee) condemned Hungary for two types of abortion restrictions that are on the rise both in Europe and in the US—mandatory waiting periods and biased counseling laws. The committee slammed the restrictions as discriminatory in its review of Hungary's government for its reproductive health care policies, and did so using groundbreaking language. The Center for Reproductive Rights and its Hungarian partner, PATENT Association, offered critical guidance to the Committee throughout the process. 

Mandatory delay laws force women to travel multiple times to their abortion provider: once to receive the state-mandated information, and once, later, to actually undergo the abortion. This extra trip (and the accompanying needs for travel expenses, childcare, and time away from work and family) can pose real obstacles, particularly for low-income women, women who live in rural areas, and women in abusive relationships. Those obstacles can themselves force women to delay their procedures even further into pregnancy, and although early abortion is a very safe procedure, the risk of complications increases with gestational age.

The UN treaty monitoring body explicitly called upon a state to eliminate discriminatory barriers to safe and legal abortion services, such as a mandatory waiting period and biased counseling.  The Hungarian Act on the Protection of Fetal Life subjects women to a three-day waiting period prior to abortion; currently 26 US states mandate waiting periods, including South Dakota, which matches the length of Hungary's delay. Hungarian women also must endure two counseling sessions aimed at dissuading women from having their pregnancies terminated; 17 U.S. states require ideology-based counseling.

The Committee urged Hungary to "[e]nsure access to safe abortion without subjecting women to mandatory counselling and a medically unnecessary waiting period as recommended by WHO." The Committee made this important recommendation at a time when similar restrictions have been introduced in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g., Russia and Slovakia), choking off access to abortion for millions of women.

The information required by biased counseling laws is often misleading or based on faulty science. For example in the US, some states' written materials claim that abortion may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, despite the fact that the National Cancer Institute has concluded that no such link exists. Similarly, some state materials discuss only the "negative" emotions a woman might experience after an abortion, entirely omitting the relief experienced by many women who have abortions, and ignoring the conclusion of the American Psychological Association that a legal first-trimester abortion poses no greater risk of mental health problems to a woman than does carrying a pregnancy to term.

The Committee expressed concern over other reproductive health issues as well, including:

  • the increasing practice of conscientious objection of health care providers in Hungary—the Committee calls upon the state to "[e]stablish an adequate regulatory framework and a mechanism for monitoring of the practice of conscientious objection by health professionals and [to] ensure that conscientious objection is accompanied by information to women about existing alternatives and that it remains a personal decision rather than an institutionalized practice."
  • a provision protecting life from the moment of conception expressed in the Hungarian Constitution adopted in 2011—the Committee specifically notes the government's assurance that this provision will not be used to further limit access to abortion.
  • limited access to modern contraception—the Committee calls upon Hungary to ensure access to family planning services and affordable contraceptives for all women "by covering the costs of range of modern contraceptives under the public health insurance and eliminating the prescription requirement for emergency contraception."

The Committee also urged Hungarian authorities to "[c]ease all negative interference with women's sexual and reproductive rights including by ending campaigns that stigmatize abortion and seek to negatively influence the public view on abortion and contraception."

In addition to submitting the shadow letter, the Center was present at the United Nations in Geneva during the session and actively advocated for these strong recommendations. The Center and its partner welcome the Committee's concluding observations and urge the Hungarian government to thoroughly implement the recommendations.

Read the Committee's entire Concluding Observations on Hungary >