UN human rights experts have declared that efforts by U.S. states to restrict access to abortion care during the COVID-19 crisis are violations of human rights.
The UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls, together with the UN special rapporteur on right to health and the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, asserted in a statement that eight U.S. states—Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee—“with a long history of restrictive practices against abortion, seem to have been manipulating the crisis to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights.”
The UN human rights experts, who serve voluntarily and in an independent capacity as the UN Human Rights Council’s “eyes and ears” on human rights conditions around the world, stated that denying timely abortion care threatens a pregnant person’s physical and mental health and safety, especially during a pandemic. The experts also noted that the recent efforts to manipulate the COVID-19 crisis are just the latest in “a pattern of restrictions and retrogressions” on abortion access in the United States. They note, too, that these restrictions exacerbate systemic inequalities and disproportionately harm low-income people, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people.
“In the days and weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak, government orders in several states forced clinics providing abortion care to turn away hundreds of patients. Others seeking care had to travel hundreds of miles across state lines during a public health emergency,” said Risa Kaufman, director for U.S. human rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “These actions are part of an ongoing and long-standing effort by states to limit, and in many cases prohibit, abortion access in the U.S., with a particularly harmful impact on marginalized communities.”
Elizabeth Broderick, Vice-Chair of the Working Group, said that “by denying access to time-sensitive abortion care, officials are placing women at risk, exacerbating systemic inequalities.”
The experts make clear that restrictions on abortion access (including requirements for multiple visits to abortion providers, excessive limits on medication abortion, and prohibitions on the use of telemedicine) undermine human rights, contrary to international human rights standards and the United States’ human rights obligations, including those the United States committed to when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
At the start of the pandemic in the U.S., anti-abortion governors and officials attempted to capitalize on the crisis by reducing access to abortion care by classifying it as a “non-essential” procedure prohibited under the states’ emergency orders. The Center and its partners filed lawsuits challenging the states’ restrictions, and because of those legal actions, abortion care was able to resume in every state in the U.S.
Trump Administration Has Tried to Erase Reproductive Rights as Human Rights
The Trump administration dismissed the UN experts’ concerns and attempted to discredit the UN human rights experts, demonstrating its “contempt for the UN human rights system and undermining critical human rights protections for reproductive rights,” according to Kaufman.
Both domestically and internationally, the administration has acted to erase reproductive rights as human rights. In July, the U.S. State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights issued a final report that seeks to create a false hierarchy of rights and disavow human rights protections for abortion, as the response from the Center for Reproductive Rights points out. The U.S. government insisted, through USAID, that references to “sexual and reproductive health and its derivates” be removed from the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan on COVID-19.
In addition, the administration has eliminated reporting on reproductive rights from the U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; has opposed or disassociated itself from UN resolutions that protect—or even mention—sexual and reproductive health and rights; and led a joint UN statement opposing UN policies that promote reproductive health and rights.
Meanwhile, within the United States, the Administration has repeatedly undermined affordable access to the full range of reproductive health care—from quality prenatal and pregnancy care to abortion care—disregarding extraordinary harm to people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and people who are low-income or living in poverty.
The UN human rights experts have it right: Reproductive rights are human rights and abortion care is essential health care that must remain available during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.