In 2008, the Center for Reproductive Rights deployed its unique legal and human rights expertise to secure access to reproductive healthcare, block assaults on abortion and birth control, and hold governments accountable for maternal deaths.
We fought a devastating contraception ban in the Philippines and launched a visionary U.S. Law School Initiative. We won crucial victories for abortion rights in Mexico and emergency contraception in Colombia. We exposed how policies in Nigeria and the United States caused needless deaths from pregnancy-related complications. And we engaged with the United Nations and regional human rights bodies to expand recognition of reproductive rights.
We made great strides in securing every woman’s human right to dignity, health, and autonomy, setting the stage for even more progress in the future.
Out of each victory springs one question: what next?
Read highlights from the 2008 Annual Report, and find out how the Center is redefining the landscape of reproductive health and rights, in the U.S. and around the world.
In 2008, Kansas women's rights were under siege by anti-abortion activists. The Center acted swiftly and smartly to defend those rights, both in court and in the capital.
The first salvo came early in the year, when Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue revived an 1887 law to launch a citizens\' grand jury investigation of Wichita doctor George Tiller, one of the country's few providers of late-term abortions. Claiming that Dr. Tiller had broken a law prohibiting late-term abortions unless a woman's life or health is in danger, the jurors subpoenaed the records of 2,000 patients who\'d sought such abortions at his clinic.
In April, the Center went to the Kansas Supreme Court to stop the fishing expedition. Exposing intimate details of patients\' lives "to strangers" is not only a gross intrusion on their constitutional right to privacy, said Bonnie Scott Jones, deputy director of the Center's U.S. Legal Program. "It is cruel."
In May, the court upheld the fundamental right to privacy in medical care, imposing strict limits on the subpoenas and requiring that the patient records be independently redacted of all information irrelevant to the investigation. In July, the grand jury found no evidence of illegal conduct by Dr. Tiller.
While violating Dr. Tiller's patients\' privacy rights, activists were also working to do the same to all Kansas women. The state Senate passed a bill that would allow a host of people-including siblings and grandparents-to legally challenge a woman's late-term abortion and extract monetary damages from doctors who break the law.
The Center again stepped in, persuading then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius to veto it.
"Nothing is more important to me than the safety, health, and privacy rights of our citizens," proclaimed the governor in her veto statement. Taking a cue from the Center's forceful letter, she argued the bill was "likely unconstitutional or even worse, endanger[ed] the lives of women."
NEXT STEPS: The Center stands ready to challenge any state laws that threaten a woman's access to safe abortion. We will also use a 2009 fact-finding report to bolster protections for abortion providers.
For almost a decade, poor women in Manila City have had to choose between buying birth control and feeding their families. Many have been forced to carry risky pregnancies to term, while others have chanced dangerous backroom abortions. These have been the real-life consequences of a policy, introduced in 2000 by then-Mayor Jose "Lito" Atienza, which has effectively banned city clinics and hospitals from distributing "artificial" contraception and left private providers afraid to sell it.
In January, twenty Manila City residents filed a lawsuit against the city in a Philippine high court, claiming that the policy has violated their human rights and should be revoked immediately.
"We want to decide for ourselves how many children we would have, and not the government to tell us how to do it," Lourdes Osil, one of the plaintiffs and a mother of six, told reporters from Reuters.
The Center and its Philippine partners Likhaan and ReproCen worked closely to develop the lawsuit, drawing on a joint fact-finding report from 2007. As the case, Lourdes Osil et al. v. Mayor of Manila, bounced from court to court on technical grounds, the Center stepped up its advocacy nationally and internationally to exert more pressure on the government.
In October, we submitted a shadow letter to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights that underscored how ideologically driven policies-including the Manila City policy and a blanket ban on abortion-have led to as many as 500,000 Philippine women seeking unsafe abortions every year and one of the highest maternal mortality rates in East and Southeast Asia.
In response, the committee issued a forceful statement urging the government to expand access to family planning, address the root causes of maternal deaths, and reconsider its stance on abortion. The recommendations came at an opportune time, as Philippine lawmakers began to debate a national reproductive health bill that would provide government-funded family planning services.
NEXT STEPS: The Center will continue to press the Philippines at the UN and on the national level to pass the reproductive health bill. We are also exploring a case at the international level.
In Nigeria, women in labor travel to hospitals by motorbike. Patients wander the maternity wards begging for money to pay their hospital fees. Pregnant women must bring their husbands to donate blood, if they don\'t and can\'t afford a fee in lieu of a blood donation, they must leave.
Almost 60,000 Nigerian women die annually during pregnancy or childbirth from preventable causes. Why is this happening in a nation with vast oil wealth and good maternal health policies-at least on paper? Because the government has failed to adequately implement and fund these policies, leading to substandard healthcare. So concludes Broken Promises: Human Rights, Accountability and Maternal Death in Nigeria, a report published by the Center in collaboration with the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre in Lagos, Nigeria.
Said Onyema Afulukwe, an attorney with the Center and one of the report's authors: "This is not a problem of resources or culture, but a failure of political will."
In July, the Center presented Broken Promises to a UN committee that monitors governments\' compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
After asking pointed questions of the Nigerian representatives, the committee issued a long list of recommendations for improving maternal health that clearly reflected the report's concerns. The recommendations include ensuring access to contraceptives and safe and legal abortion. But the intention of Broken Promises was not only to expose the problem-it was to offer solutions. To craft effective and far-reaching strategies against maternal deaths, the Center drafted a policy paper and has been engaging with government officials, local and international civil society and donor organizations, and Nigerian doctors and educators.
Looking ahead, a critical part of holding Nigeria accountable to its own policies is making information about how the government spends its money available to the public.
NEXT STEPS: The Center will be working with a leading women's rights organization to promote transparency and accountability through law-another step in stemming the tragic, unnecessary loss of Nigerian women's lives.
Khiara M. Bridges: a top graduate of Columbia Law School, an anthropologist who spent 15 months conducting field research at an obstetrics clinic in New York City, a budding legal scholar with a keen interest in how racial inequality undercuts women's reproductive rights. Bridges\' accomplishments and passions made her the ideal recipient of the first Future Scholar Fellowship, a central feature of the Center's visionary Law School Initiative.
Launched in 2008, the Initiative aims to invigorate legal scholarship and teaching around reproductive health and human rights. It brings to U.S. law schools a growing international body of law that recognizes a woman's reproductive autonomy and health as critical to her human rights. The ultimate goal: to stimulate new legal theories that can advance reproductive rights litigation, advocacy, and policy.
Already the Initiative has organized academic gatherings across the U.S. to fuel cutting-edge legal thinking and writing on reproductive health and human rights, and developed new curricula and course materials to promote teaching on the topic. It has also created the Innovation in Scholarship Award to support top legal scholars and established — with Columbia Law School — the Future Scholar Fellowship to cultivate promising young scholars such as Bridges. The fellowship enables these future leaders to pursue independent scholarship and watch first-hand as legal theory is put into practice.
Helping spearhead the Law School Initiative is Diana Hortsch, former director of the Global Public Service Law Project at New York University's School of Law. While at NYU, Hortsch developed innovative programs for law students, including a partnership with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that provided students with on-the-ground experience in international law. She also has extensive teaching experience and worked on human rights issues for the Ford Foundation.
NEXT STEPS: In 2009, the Initiative will grant the first Innovation in Scholarship Award to Reva Siegel, the Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law at Yale Law School.