Recognizing Abortion Providers as Human Rights Defenders

Human Rights defenders are the activists, including journalists, lawyers, judges, and healthcare providers, whose work allows others to exercise their human rights.

Defenders play a critical role in ensuring that human rights enshrined in international human rights treaties translate into meaningful rights at the national level. Unfortunately, these courageous individuals are frequently targeted by public officials and social, cultural, or religious actors opposed to altering the status quo. In recognition of the importance of the role of human rights defenders worldwide and to draw attention to the risks and vulnerabilities they face, the U.N. General Assembly in 1999 unanimously adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which urges governments to ensure the protection of human rights defenders.

The U.N. Human Rights Council appointed Ms. Margaret Sekaggya to serve as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. Her mandate charges her to identify and respond to the situation of human rights defenders, cooperate with governments to enforce the Declaration, recommend effective strategies to enhance protection for defenders, and integrate a gender perspective throughout her work.

Ms. Sekaggya and her predecessor, Ms. Hina Jilani, have raised the profile of women's human rights defenders, a group of defenders often targeted in different ways and for different reasons than others. Some defenders—both men and women—face heightened risk because of their work defending women's rights, which often calls for changes to laws, institutions, customs or social norms that discriminate against women. Other women's rights defenders are targeted because of their gender, making them more vulnerable to specific forms of attack such as sexual violence. In either case, the special risks and vulnerabilities faced by women’s rights defenders require governments to take extra measures to ensure their rights. Reproductive healthcare providers and advocates are women's rights defenders because they seek to ensure that women can exercise their human rights to reproductive health and reproductive autonomy. They often experience violence, harassment and stigma as a result of their work defending women’s fundamental rights to equality, health and reproductive autonomy.

The Center is working to draw attention to the important role that reproductive healthcare providers play in defending women's reproductive rights, and to address the causes and consequences of targeting providers. Ever since the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right to an abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, U.S. abortion providers have endured harassment, intimidation, and violence by abortion opponents. Meanwhile, states have passed laws that subject abortion providers to numerous restrictions not imposed on healthcare professionals offering comparable services—in effect, legislating abortion stigma. These restrictions, the vast majority of which are both unnecessary and unrelated to the goal of promoting patients' health, impose criminal penalties or other severe sanctions on providers if they fail to comply. As a result, abortion providers in the U.S. are forced to work under circumstances far more dangerous, costly, and legally burdensome than every other kind of healthcare provider. Ultimately, the legal restrictions, harassment, violence and stigma deter many providers from offering abortion, significantly impacting women’s ability to access their right to abortion.

As part of a multi-pronged defense of abortion providers, the Center uses human rights law and strategies to advance recognition of abortion providers as women's human rights defenders in the United States and around the world.  At the end of 2010, the Center's advocacy to achieve domestic and international recognition of abortion as human rights defenders achieved a great step forward.  In her December 2010 Annual Report to the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders explicitly recognized as defenders of women's rights, “medical and health professionals [who], by providing sexual and reproductive health services, ensure that women can exercise their reproductive rights.”  The report acknowledges that, in certain countries, reproductive healthcare providers often face harassment and threats of violence because of their work, sometimes with fatal outcomes. The Special Rapporteur goes on to discuss the role that State actors have in perpetuating stigmatization of women’s human rights defenders and calls on governments to, among other things, acknowledge the important role played by “women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues… as a first step to preventing or reducing the risks that they face.”

The Center continues to work with UN experts and mechanisms to recognize abortion providers as women’s human rights defenders and to bolster protections for their rights at the national and local level.