WHO Report: Safe Abortion is Essential to Protecting Women’s Human Rights

States should eliminate barriers to abortion services, provide accurate information on reproductive health care

(PRESS RELEASE) Providing women across the globe with access to safe and legal abortion services is essential to realizing and protecting their fundamental human rights, according to the updated safe abortion guidance issued this week by the World Health Organization (WHO).
 
The new guidance—updating the agency’s 2003 publication—recognizes that nearly every one of the approximately 47,000 deaths and additional five million injuries due to unsafe abortion worldwide “could have been prevented through sexuality education, family planning, and the provision of safe, legal induced abortion and care for complications of abortion.”
 
Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:
 
“The world’s foremost public health agency has reaffirmed the well-established truth that access to safe abortion is good public health policy that protects the human rights of millions of women globally.
 
“Countries with restrictive abortion laws must heed the WHO’s guidance to protect the fundamental human rights of the women living within their borders.”
 
WHO guidance recognizes that governments that restrictively interpret existing laws permitting abortion can create significant barriers for women and that women should have access to accurate information about their pregnancies and their country’s laws and policies on abortion.
 
There are countless examples across the globe that underscore the importance of interpreting and enforcing abortion laws in ways that protect women’s human rights.
 
For example, the Center and its local partners recently brought a successful case against Peru before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on behalf of LC, a pregnant 13-year old rape victim who was deprived critical medical attention —despite the fact that Peru’s law permits abortion to preserve a woman’s life or health. Had Peru established clear protocols for police and health care providers on what the law allowed, as recommended by the guidance, LC would have received the legal abortion she medically needed.
 
Another critical example lies within the Center and its partner’s efforts before the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Poland violated a woman’s human rights by repeatedly denying her prenatal genetic testing after her doctor discovered fetal irregularities during a sonogram, all in an effort to keep her from considering abortion. Today’s guidance clearly states that “prenatal tests and other medical diagnostic services cannot legally be refused because the woman may decide to terminate her pregnancy. A woman is entitled to know the status of her pregnancy and to act on this information.”
 
In underscoring the importance of women having access to information about abortion, the guidance also calls on countries to decriminalize the dissemination of information about legal abortion and to ensure women know how and where to obtain lawful abortion services.
 
This updated guidance joins a long list of international bodies in recognizing the importance of access to information about legal abortion. Last year, Anand Grover, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health issued a groundbreaking report instructing governments to remove restrictions on the availability of information about abortion services and ensure that accurate, evidence-based information about abortion and its legality is publicly available.
 
Additionally, with this new guidance, the WHO sends a clear message to governments that rather than imposing onerous restrictions on abortion for women—such as those proposed and passed with increasing frequency in recent years in the United States, Eastern Europe, and Central America—officials must create an enabling environment “to ensure that every woman who is legally eligible has ready access to safe abortion care” and remove “barriers that hinder access to and timely provision of safe abortion care.”
 
The WHO notes that third-party consent requirements and other regulatory, policy, and access barriers interfere with women’s and adolescents’ right to make decisions about reproduction and to exercise control over their bodies.  The guidance refers to high costs, mandatory waiting periods, parental notification requirements, long distances to facilities, and lack of access to affordable transportation to facilities as barriers.
 
Governments around the world have failed to protect women’s human rights by placing such barriers in the way of their ability to obtain an abortion, and the United States is a prime example of this reality. For example, more than half of U.S. states require women wait at least 24-hours before an abortion procedure. Thirty-seven states require parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion and nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties lack even one abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
 
“To their great shame, too many U.S. states have set themselves forth as shining examples for the global network of extremists who seek to reverse decades of progress in broadening reproductive choice and access to reproductive health care,” Northup added. “The passage of legislation placing barriers between women and safe, legal abortion represents an abject failure of lawmakers to protect the constitutional and fundamental human rights of the women they’re elected to serve.”
 
For more information about abortion restrictions around the globe, visit CRR’s interactive World Abortion Laws map.