Historic U.N. Ruling Finds Brazil Violates Woman’s Human Rights in Maternal Death Case

(PRESS RELEASE) In the first-ever maternal death case to be decided by an international human rights body, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women established that governments have a human rights obligation to guarantee that all women in their countries—regardless of income or racial background—have access to timely, non-discriminatory, and appropriate maternal health services.

Even when governments outsource health services to private institutions, the committee found, they remain directly responsible for their actions and have a duty to regulate and monitor said institutions. 

Today’s decision is a groundbreaking victory that will benefit women worldwide, says Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization that filed the case with the United Nations.

“As an emerging world power and symbol of economic development, it’s time that the Brazilian government step up to the plate and start addressing the stark social, economic and racial disparities that deny women access to basic health care services,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “While Brazil has significantly reduced its number of maternal deaths, the government isn’t doing enough to save the lives of pregnant poor, rural, and Afro-Brazilian women.”

The case before the committee revolves around the death of Alyne da Silva Pimentel, a 28-year-old Afro-Brazilian woman who suffered from a high-risk pregnancy and was denied timely care at public health facilities. As a result, Alyne died following delivery of a stillbirth, leaving behind her 5-year-old daughter. Had there been a basic obstetric health care system in place in Brazil, Alyne would have survived.

“Alyne’s story is one of thousands in Brazil, and all around the world, in which women are denied, and in some cases refused, basic quality medical care to address common pregnancy complications,” said Luisa Cabal, director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “This case sends a strong message to Brazil and to countries around the world that access to quality maternal health care services is a fundamental right, and that governments should be held responsible if they fail to act to protect this right.”

According to WHO, Brazil has significantly lowered its maternal mortality ratio over the last decade, but countrywide statistics mask severe disparities based on race, economic status, region, and urban or rural distributions.  Demographically, maternal mortality rates are much higher in the North and Northeast of Brazil, which contain a greater share of poverty and larger rural populations than the rest of the country.

In particular, women of African descent, and indigenous, poor and single women living in the poorest regions of the country are disproportionately affected by maternal mortality.  In this case, the committee affirmed that Alyne suffered from multiple discrimination on the basis of her gender, African descent, and her socio-economic background.

The ruling specifically establishes violations to the right to health, the right to access to justice, and due diligence obligations, and ordered the government to:

•    Compensate Alyne’s family, including her mother and daughter;
•    Ensure women’s right to safe motherhood and affordable access to adequate emergency obstetric care;
•    Provide adequate professional training for health workers;
•    Ensure that private health care facilities comply with national and international standards on reproductive health care; and
•    Ensure that sanctions are imposed on health professionals who violate women’s reproductive health rights.