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U.N. Committee: Russia and Slovakia Must Remove Waiting Periods and Other Barriers to Safe and Legal Abortion

(PRESS RELEASE) The governments of Russia and Slovakia are undermining women’s human rights by introducing retrogressive barriers in access to safe and legal abortion, according to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (U.N. CEDAW).

The U.N. CEDAW recommendations to Russia and Slovakia released this week criticize both governments for introducing new restrictions on women’s access to safe and legal abortion through mandatory waiting periods and biased counseling and information requirements. For decades, both countries have allowed abortion without restriction as to reason (commonly referred to as abortion on request) in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy without subjecting women to mandatory waiting periods and biased counseling requirements. However, over the last six years, both countries have introduced and enacted new laws and policies intended to make access to timely abortion services more burdensome for women.

The developments in Russia and Slovakia reflect a concerning trend that has emerged across Central and Eastern Europe over recent years as legislatures in countries such as Macedonia, Georgia, Latvia and Romania have sought to limit women’s access to abortion services by introducing measures meant to dissuade women from proceeding with an abortion.

Said Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“A woman’s decision to access abortion services should be respected and she should never be subjected to biased, medically inaccurate information or made to wait for abortion care.  

“Regressive measures like the ones enacted in Russia and Slovakia can delay women’s access to safe and legal abortion services and represent an attempt to shame women and stigmatize abortion.

“The Russian and Slovak governments should move now to repeal these discriminatory laws and policies.”

In 2011, Russia enacted laws requiring women to observe mandatory waiting periods ranging from 2-7 days before accessing abortion on request —and in many regions of the country women must now undergo directive and stigmatizing counseling about abortion.

An amendment to Slovakia’s Healthcare Act in 2009 introduced a mandatory waiting period for women seeking abortion on request, as well a requirement that women receive biased information from medical professionals that is intended to dissuade them from accessing abortion services. 

International human rights bodies and medical experts have repeatedly recognized that these types of requirements undermine respect for women’s human rights and the principle of informed consent. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly held that mandatory waiting periods should not apply to abortion care because they can have the effect of delaying care, which can jeopardize women’s ability to access safe, legal abortion services. The WHO Safe Abortion Guidelines also stress that abortion counseling should never be mandatory and should always be non-directive and that the provision of information on abortion should be provided in line with the principle of informed consent.

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) has also criticized such restrictions on abortion because they reflect harmful gender stereotypes.

In a new publication launched this week, the Center for Reproductive Rights explores the retrogressive introduction of barriers to legal abortion in Central and Eastern Europe. “Mandatory Waiting Periods and Biased Counseling Requirements in Central and Eastern Europe: Restricting Access to Abortion, Undermining Human Rights, and Reinforcing Harmful Gender Stereotypes” presents a comparative overview of this concerning legislative trend and captures its troubling human rights and reproductive health implications, unpacking how and why the recent introduction of these barriers contravenes international human rights standards and WHO guidelines.

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