Maternal Mortality and the Decriminalization of Abortion at the Human Rights Council

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The UN Human Rights Council gathered for its 24th session in Geneva, from September 9-27, 2013, bringing together human rights activists, civil society members, and United Nations and state officials from across the globe. The Center for Reproductive Rights continued its pursuit of ensuring and advancing women’s reproductive rights, specifically addressing maternal mortality and the decriminalization of abortion.

On Sept. 11, on a panel titled Maternal Mortality: Implementation and Accountability, representatives from the Center, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Sexual Rights Initiative, UNFPA, the World Health Organization, and the New Zealand, Burkina Faso, and Colombian missions urged states to ensure that human rights are at the core of reducing maternal mortality and morbidity in the post-2015 agenda.   

Lilian Sepúlveda, the Center’s Director of the Global Legal Program, focused attention on the fact that despite the CEDAW Committee’s groundbreaking decision in the case of Alyne da Silva Pimental v. Brazil, the Brazilian government has failed to take adequate action to implement that decision. Although the CEDAW Committee, in finding the state responsible for Alyne’s preventable maternal death, ordered the state to pay financial reparations to her family, Alyne’s daughter and mother have still not received financial compensation. Furthermore, substantial differences remain in the health care received by marginalized groups in Brazil, particularly those experiencing discrimination on several grounds, such as Alyne, who was a poor, Afro-Brazilian woman.

On September 17, at a panel entitled Decriminalization of Abortion: A Human Rights Imperative, representatives from the Center, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the Sexual Rights Initiative, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Federation for Women and Family Planning, and the Uruguayan mission discussed the urgent need for states to decriminalize abortion in order to meet their international human rights obligations and protect women’s reproductive rights. As noted by Stuart Halford, the Center’s Advocacy Adviser, during the event, “The fact that a woman dies every eight minutes from unsafe abortion is not just a public health issues, it is a human rights violation which states are legally obligated to take measures to address.” Highlighting that women’s right to safe and legal abortion is a fundamental human right, the panelists called on states to reform their laws in line with the international human rights standards and guarantee women access to safe abortion services.